Last Call for the Tel Aviv Metro

Billions are being spent on a light rail system, a hybrid concoction that will run partly underground and partly aboveground. What happened to the Tel Aviv subway?

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Tel Aviv's big dig begins, August 2, 2015.
Tel Aviv's big dig begins, August 2, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

Tel Aviv is in disarray. After so many years of dramatic declarations and empty talk about a subway for Tel Aviv, it looks like it is finally beginning to take shape. A bridge is being torn down, tunnels are being dug, rats are coming out of their lairs and shopkeepers are demonstrating and demanding compensation.

Will this be the subway that was originally planned to relieve traffic congestion in Greater Tel Aviv by providing an underground level for public transportation? Like the ones that have existed for decades in New York, London and Paris, and built more recently in Cairo and Athens? You might be disappointed to hear that the answer is no. Billions are being spent on a so-called light rail system — a hybrid concoction that will run part of the way underground and part of the way aboveground. What happened to the Tel Aviv metro?

To answer that question, one must turn to the Finance Ministry. Not the present finance minister, nor its senior officials, but to those who in past years stubbornly held up financing for the project, insisting that Tel Aviv did not need a subway: that buses were the best solution to the congestion in the Tel Aviv area, that some remote city in Brazil should serve as an example of how municipal traffic problems are solved using buses. We must turn to the officials who recruited an academic traffic expert to prove that ridership would not be high enough to justify the cost of building a subway. Where are they now, those bureaucrats who condemned the people of metropolitan Tel Aviv to years of congestion and traffic jams? They left their government positions for better-paying jobs in the financial sector, and take no responsibility for the damage they wrought.

They were followed by officials who were slightly more reticent in their objections to a subway for Tel Aviv, but who insisted that the project be made cheaper. They were, as treasury officials frequently are, penny-wise and pound-foolish. So they arrived at a compromise: The trains would run part of the way underground and part of the way aboveground, thus saving the cost of tunneling the entire route. Like the proverbial horse designed by a committee, that turned out to be a camel, the subway project was turned into a light-rail project — a hybrid concoction which is far from being the optimal answer to an urgent problem that costs the country many millions every year.

Is it too late to correct the error? Our Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who with his characteristic energy rightly takes pride in getting things done, probably hesitates to introduce delays at this stage of the long-awaited project. But it is not too late to redirect this giant enterprise costing billions in the proper direction: an underground train that runs all the way underground. It should not involve any loss in time.

Without halting the work now in progress, the Transportation Ministry should request an examination of what making the change at this stage would involve. Such a review, which should be carried out by a foreign company with extensive experience in designing and operating subway systems, should not take more than a few months to do. During this period the preparatory work now being carried out, which in any case is in the area where even according to the current plan the trains will run underground, can continue. When the study is completed, a decision can be made: to continue on the present course or to build a proper subway for the greater Tel Aviv area. This is the last chance to give the residents of Tel Aviv the public transportation that will provide the best service. That is what was planned originally and which, but for the obstruction of treasury officials, would have been running by now.

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