'Clean Air Act' Puts City Hall in the Driver's Seat

Several months ago, a conference on car pollution was held at the Trade Fair's and Convention Center. During the event, the mayors of Tel Aviv and Holon, Ron Huldai and Moti Sasson, complained that they lacked the authority to take action and fight the phenomenon. One participant, MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), heard their call and within the next few days hopes to pass a law that will for the first time give local authorities the power to prevent pollution.

As talk over introducing a "clean air" bill has entered its final stages, Khenin has assumed a central role in the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. He has decided to separate a number of clauses from the main bill and fast-track them as separate laws by reforming existing legislation.

Car pollution is a leading cause of illnesses in Israel and other countries in the world, more than pollution caused by factories or power stations.

Khenin's proposed changes that now face second and third readings states that each local council with over 30,000 inhabitants will draw up a long-term plan to reduce car pollution through administration and traffic regulation in its jurisdiction.

The plan will be based upon expert opinions, examining how a reduction in air and car pollution and a rerouting of traffic will affect the populace. Thus, local authorities will be able to ban pollutant cars or cars in general from entering certain areas. Its inspectors will be given broad authority to prevent certain vehicles from entering an area.

One of Khenin's chief concerns as well as those of environmental groups is that local authorities will introduce various limitations on traffic without providing for public transportation options.

As a result, the reform Khenin proposes will allow local authorities to impose bans on entry of vehicles within its jurisdiction only if a parallel plan to improve public transportation in the said area has been implemented. Public transportation using environmentally friendly technology will be given preference. Money raised by fines will be channeled toward a fund encouraging development of public transportation. "Such a fund will subsidize public transportation," Khenin said.

He explained that "according to the reform, local authorities will be given powers. The Ministry of Transportation may decide to assume more powers over a certain road and its regulation of traffic, but then it will have to set a plan of its own to cut pollution on such routes."

One of the key methods to reduce the number of cars - a congestion toll - is not included in Khenin's reforms. Cities like London have successfully implemented such a system that levies fees for drivers entering the city center during peak hours. In London, this system has been accredited with substantially reducing the number of cars entering its center.

"Congestion charges are not part of the reforms because we have not reach an agreement over providing substitutes for cars," Khenin explained. "I, for one, demanded more lanes be set apart for public transportation and that the fees be allocated to improving it."

At the same time as Khenin is pushing his reforms, the clean air bill is reaching the final stretch. The bill will require the government to formulate a national plan to reduce air pollution and impose air pollution quotas for factories.

According to Tzipi Isar-Itzik, lawyer for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the reform is important but cannot be fully realized without passing the clean air bill.

"This law will require the Minister of Environmental Protection to declare pollution-plagued areas, and then local authorities will have to take action and battle pollution," she said.