Another Century of Traffic Jams

Here's a question worthy of a national commission of inquiry: How is it that Tel Aviv, which is celebrating its centennial, doesn't have a subway?

Here's a question worthy of a national commission of inquiry: How is it that Tel Aviv, which is celebrating its centennial, doesn't have a subway?

Israelis traveling abroad enjoy the availability, speed and comfort of public transportation, but here we wait for the bus in the rain and heat, and lumber along through narrow, crowded streets. More than 3 million people live in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area without an acceptable level of public transportation, while in significantly smaller European cities, subway systems have long been running; in Iran and North Korea, too. In Israel we get talk and promises, but no subway. Only a pathetic PR film can be found on the project's Web site.

The benefits for crowded central Israel, the savings to the economy and the impact on the environment of an electric-powered train filled with passengers instead of masses of polluting cars will be enormous. Also, accident rates will drop if young people have a cheap and easy alternative to driving at night.

But building a light railroad in the greater Tel Aviv area, part of which has been planned as a subway, has not moved forward because of problems involving the entrepreneurs behind it. Now, after a year of empty debate, the state is threatening to quash the project, according to Avi Bar-Eli in yesterday's TheMarker. This will require a new tender and there will be petitions to the Supreme Court. And the result? A child born today will not benefit from a ride to school using modern, quick public transportation immune to bad weather or traffic jams.

The Israeli culture of improvisation has trouble handling large projects; there is no more blatant expression of this than the Tel Aviv subway fiasco. Its roots can be found before the establishment of the state. The British built the country's basic infrastructure, like Haifa Port and Lod Airport, and the Zionist Movement focused on developing agriculture in the periphery, which the first Hebrew city developed under private auspices, patch by patch, without direction.

David Ben-Gurion, who lived in Tel Aviv and declared Israel's independence there, didn't gave priority to his home city. He considered spreading out the population and developing the Negev more important. Israel's blueprint during his time (the "Sharon Plan") accounted for the system of roads and railroads and ignored the needs of urban transportation. The national projects of the nuclear plant and the National Water Carrier were about the collective's needs - deterrence and irrigation - not the welfare of the masses. Comfortable and speedy transportation to the job and leisure activities were not even on the agenda.

Only in 1973 did Golda Meir's government decide to design a public transportation system for the Dan Region - the greater Tel Aviv area. Shimon Peres was transportation minister at the time. Nothing was done for 20 years until Roni Milo was elected Tel Aviv mayor based on his campaign to put a subway in the city, and he pushed the idea forward. Since then the initiative has drowned in bureaucratic verbiage.

Illustrating the low priority that the project has received, the declaration this week that "the light rail in the Dan Region is the most important project in Israel" was made by a low-ranking treasury official, not the prime minister. The capitalist Benjamin Netanyahu is behaving just like the socialist Ben-Gurion. He is opting for "national goals" like populating Sheikh Jarrah with Jews over creating infrastructure that would let the majority of the country's citizens enjoy quality living.

In his Knesset speech last week, Netanyahu spoke about the Galilee's new roads, but not about Tel Aviv's trains. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who is promising new roads to the settlements, "hopes" that the light rail project will begin. "Hopes?" Just who will ensure that the hopes come true?

The time has come to rally and give Tel Aviv a subway. But large projects require an initiator and leadership, like Peres with Dimona, Levi Eshkol with the National Water Carrier, Israel Tal with the Merkava tank and Ariel Sharon with the settlements. Who will initiate the Tel Aviv subway and ensure that the children of the fall of 2009 will use it to get to school?