With just two days remaining before the contract operating Tel Aviv’s central bus station is automatically renewed for four more years, the agencies that had promised to shut it down are divided on solutions. Unless someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat by Friday, December 31, the maze will remain in operation until 2027.
The impasse it between Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg who have been unable to reach an agreement on closing the highly polluting station, which for decades south Tel Aviv residents near the station have been calling for its removal.
“The situation here is absurd,” said Avi, who lives nearby. “Every day, from 5 A.M. to 11 P.M., there's bus traffic. My windows are always closed, I live on air-conditioning. Only on weekends do we open a window.”
Others have even worse problems. “I live attached to four inhalers because of respiratory issues; I’m alive only thanks to them,” said Margalit Ben-Ezer, another resident.
A man who asked to remain anonymous says he was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords a decade ago. Though he recovered, he said a young neighbor died of the disease. In both cases, “it’s clear it was from the pollution,” he added.
Two months ago, good news appeared to be in the offing. Huldai and Michaeli announced that the contract with Nitsba, the company operating the station, wouldn’t be renewed when it ends in 2023. Instead, the buses would depart from four temporary terminals to be located in open areas in south Tel Aviv.
“The removal of the central bus station is happening,” Michaeli said on TikTok. “I’m happy that we’ve managed to sign all the necessary agreements.”
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But a few weeks ago, the city changed its mind – or more accurately, Huldai did, according to sources in city hall. Consequently, it froze the process. The sources said they were “shocked,” adding that Huldai “sought any excuse to flee the agreement.” And city officials said they have no idea why.
Huldai’s aides said the Transportation Ministry’s plan for one of the four temporary terminals, Beit Panorama in the Tel Kabir neighborhood, “can’t be implemented due to the site’s limitations.”
Though Huldai himself proposed this site, the ministry’s plan would require expanding the existing building at the expense of a nearby stretch of kurkar that would also serve as a parking lot for the buses, the aides said.
Kurkar is a kind of sandstone unique to the eastern Mediterranean coast. And even though the stretch in question is neglected and filled with trash, it’s an important natural site, so the city won’t approve its use, the aides added.
As a result, the city scrapped the entire plan to close the central bus station.
The Transportation Ministry could end the contract even without the city’s consent, since it’s the one that pays Nitsba 18 million shekels ($5.8 million) a year.
But then it would need to scramble to find an alternative by the end of 2023, and ministry sources said the likely disruption of the city’s transportation network would hurt the residents more than leaving the station in place.
“A unilateral withdrawal, without the local government’s consent, would lead to a transportation catastrophe throughout Gush Dan,” one said, referring to Greater Tel Aviv.
“We’re doing our best to try to solve this problem. But if it isn’t solved, all options are on the table to ensure the closure.”
The Environmental Protection Ministry could also intervene, by declaring the station an “air pollution hazard.” That would require the municipality to create a plan to reduce the pollution within six months. The ministry could even issue a closure order for the station, but this “would deal a serious blow to bus users and increase traffic jams and disorder,” which would cause even greater environmental harm, one said.
Nevertheless, ministry sources added, if all the relevant bodies fail to reach an agreement, they plan to declare the station an air pollution hazard in the coming months.
South Tel Aviv residents are furious that neither ministry is taking the necessary steps.
“Merav Michaeli isn’t subordinate to Ron Huldai; she should put him in his place,” said Tel Aviv city councilwoman Shula Keshet, who has been leading the battle against the station ever since it opened. “The sword is at our throats, but they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”
Gadi Tunes, an activist in the fight against the station, said the ministries haven’t taken action until now “because they thought the municipality would come to its senses, but they certainly could – and should.”
Actor Dana Ivgy, a south Tel Aviv resident, said that’s the Environmental Protection Ministry’s job. “Why does the Environmental Protection Ministry exist if not to save people from exactly these kinds of situations?” she demanded.
But people who live near the planned temporary terminals are now organizing to fight against their establishment.
Simha Talalayevsky, one of the leaders of that protest, said a major concern is that the new terminals – all of which are slated to be set up near poor neighborhoods like Abu Kabir, Neveh Ofer and Kiryat Shalom – would become venues for drug dealing, prostitution, violence and other crimes, just like the central bus station is now. They also worry that the pollution will simply migrate from the Neveh Sha’anan and Shapira neighborhoods to their own.
“It’s a sad situation,” Ivgy admitted. “We’re all in the same boat… The real problem is that there’s no public involvement, no transparency.”
On that, both sides seem to agree. Both say they have tried to meet with municipal officials but “run into a wall.”
“They’re leaving the residents to choke on this by themselves and abdicating responsibility,” one resident said. “In all their responses, the municipality blames the Transportation Ministry and the Transportation Ministry blames the municipality.
“They can find whatever solution they please, but they should find a solution. People are dying here.”