The "fast lane to Tel Aviv" will open to the public on January 7. The express lane is the name of the new toll lane on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Route 1, between the Lod Interchange and the beginning of the Ayalon Highway at the Kibbutz Galuyot Interchange in Tel Aviv. It's meant to reduce traffic entering Tel Aviv and encourage the use of public transportation.
The new lane only goes in one direction: toward Tel Aviv. The project also includes a park-and-ride facility with free shuttle buses to Tel Aviv's Kirya area and the Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan.
"A driver who enters Tel Aviv every morning loses 200 hours a year from traffic jams. Two-hundred hours is five weeks of eight-hour work days. In other words, hundreds of thousands of people waste five weeks every year doing nothing, and they are doing it with the engine running, wasting gas and polluting the environment," the head of the fast lane project, Nitzan Yotzer, said yesterday.
Shapir Civil Engineering built the project and will operate it under a BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer ) franchise for 27 years. The project is one of the most daring and controversial in the history of Israeli infrastructure. It cost NIS 400 million to build.
Public transportation and vehicles carrying more than four passengers, including the driver, will be able to use the new lane for free. The lane is the left one. Others will pay a so-called dynamic toll, which will be based on the amount of traffic on the highway and in the lane. The more traffic, the higher the price. The toll will range from NIS 6 to NIS 75 per trip.
Motorcyclists will pay half the regular toll. During off-peak hours, cars with only three passengers, including the driver, will ride free. Shapir and the state are still arguing whether the minimum toll will be NIS 6 or NIS 7, based on different interpretations of the details in the contract.
The speed in the 13-kilometer stretch is not supposed to be less than 70 kilometers an hour. This would allow drivers to drive the new stretch in 11 minutes, compared with the half hour to an hour that is now typical during rush hour.
Under the dynamic toll, when the speed in the express lane drops near the 70-kilometer-per-hour lower limit, the price will automatically go up to discourage cars from entering. The complex algorithm behind the toll was designed by Germany's Siemens, and the control and billing system was designed by Israeli company Orad.
Between 1,600 to 2,000 cars an hour are forecast to use the lane during busy times. The toll is expected to be between NIS 17 and NIS 20 during rush hour. Yotzer said the toll is not meant to cover the cost of the project, but to act as a tool to ensure traffic flowed at the desired speed.
"The fast lane will change the culture of entering Gush Dan [the greater Tel Aviv area], bring good news to the hundreds of thousands of drivers who are forced to deal with one of the biggest traffic jams in Israel, and improve the quality of life of those living mostly east and south of Tel Aviv," said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
He said the new lane would largely serve public transportation and vehicles with many passengers, and would cut the number of vehicles entering Tel Aviv.
A road for the rich?
Yotzer took reporters and others on a tour of the express lane yesterday to explain the project. "The foremost transportation problem is congestion. If there was no congestion, most of the Transportation Ministry's budget would be unnecessary," said Yotzer.
He said two things had to be done to deal with congestion: provide public transportation and manage demand. Yotzer said that today, bus service is geared toward people with no alternative. Instead, people who own cars should be encouraged to switch to buses.
The park-and-ride facility has room for 2,000 cars, and shuttle buses will run every five minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes at other times. The parking area will even have a branch of the Cup 'o' Joe (Cafe Joe in Hebrew ) chain. The state will pay Shapir NIS 10 for every car that parks at the park and ride.
"These are very ambitious goals. There is no such project anywhere else in the world as a complete model, and we need patience when it opens," said Yotzer, adding that he is worried about heavy traffic for the first few days after the fast lane opens. "It will take time until demand rises, and we do not expect the lot to be full at the opening," he said.
The project is problematic since drivers have to be reeducated and change their behavior. Some call it a "road for the rich," allowing those willing to spend lots of money to get to Tel Aviv faster while others sit in traffic.
A long list of other problems
In addition, the new lane's success depends on factors beyond the operator's control, such as traffic in the other lanes. That's why many observers predict failure in one form or another. But others are less pessimistic, saying that since traffic is so bad on Route 1, in the end drivers will have no choice but to use the new facilities. This stretch is the third busiest in Israel, after the western section of Route 5 and the Ayalon Highway - and is only expected to get worse.
There is a long list of other possible problems facing the new express lane. For example, drivers' main fear in the new lane will be what happens when they reach the entrance to the Ayalon Highway. If the Ayalon is backed up and has not been improved, the fast lane will slow down and back up too. Since the lane only runs east-west, people coming back from work will have to sit in traffic on the shuttle buses - just like everyone else. Then they will have to get out, pick up their cars and join the heavy traffic. Will this put off drivers from using the park and ride?
What is missing is a train station at the park-and-ride center. The original plan had such a station, but this was nixed due to cost. In addition, the idea was originally to do away with the nearby train station at Kfar Chabad and use the park-and-ride site, but political pressure from Kfar Chabad's residents ended that idea.
Jerusalem toll lane stuck in traffic
Also, the parking lot will close down for the night. The last shuttle bus will leave at 11 P.M., and any car left in the lot will face a NIS 50 fine for being there after midnight.
And if you want to take advantage of carpooling and carry more than three or four passengers - for free, there's a catch. You must enter the lot area and have a worker count the number of passengers and enter it in the system. In other words, you have to get off the highway, probably wait in line and then get back on to drive for free.
In the franchise agreement between Shapir and the state, Shapir was given an option to build a similar toll lane at the entrance to Jerusalem. The infrastructure for such a lane was readied two years ago, but the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee refused to approve the plan.
The current and former mayors of Jerusalem also objected to the plan - and the chances of the Knesset approving the Jerusalem project look very slim.
For now the state has postponed this option until the middle of 2011, but if it is canceled, the state will have to pay Shapir for lost profits over an eight-year period.