The Bennett-Lapid government is doing everything it can to postpone taking a decision on one of the most important items on the religion-and-state agenda, namely whether the Dan Region Light Rail, which is slated to launch this November, operate on Shabbat.
Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli supports the idea, but she has encountered opposition and concerns from other members of the government (among them ministers from the Yamina and New Hope parties) who maintain eye contact with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
However, narrow political calculations should not be allowed to triumph as the fate of the Dan Light Rail will determine the fate of all public transportation in Israel over the next three decades.
The “change” government has already dealt effectively with matters of religion and state, such as the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut certification for businesses by allowing private companies to compete as of next year. This is a blessing for businesses that have had to surrender to the dictates of the Chief Rabbinate and pay exorbitant sums for its services. The kashrut monopoly is about to be broken, but the veto held by the ultra-Orthodox parties on transportation on the Sabbath remains firmly in place.
It is no secret that public transportation in Israel is among the worst in the developed world. While the number of cars on the roads is a relatively low 406 per 1,000 residents, compared with 774 in Spain and 929 in Italy, road congestion is among the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel has been developing its transportation infrastructure at a slower pace than the growth of the population. To make up for the lost years, Israel will have to invest massively in, among other things, mass transit for the Dan Region.
The rate of car ownership has soared in recent years because many people have given up on the dubious pleasure of riding buses and trains, both because it is time consuming and because the coronavirus pandemic led to fears about crowding. The result has been steadily worsening traffic jams. To reserve this trend, Israel must make public transportation efficient and attractive enough to act an alternative to private cars. In that context, the issue of transportation on Shabbat is critical.
Haim Glick, the CEO of NTA, the company in charge of the Dan Light Rail project, says that in line with government policy no preparations are underway to operate on the Sabbath. This will deal a severe blow to the young and people who don’t own a car for whom the Light Rail should provide a way to get around on weekends. Between the Dan Light Rail and Tel Aviv Metro, the government is expected to invest at least 250 billion shekels ($78 billion). Given the enormity of that sum, it is unreasonable that it will be shut down one out of every seven days as well as on holidays.
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Whatever is decided with regard to the Light Rail’s Red Line will impact the next two other Light Rail and three metro lines slated for construction over the next decade. A government without any Haredi parties should take advantage of the rare opportunity to establish facts on the ground that will set the tone of transportation policy for decades to come.
The argument for maintaining the status quo will undoubtedly be raised in this battle. However, Israel’s demographic reality necessitates solutions that include transportation on Shabbat. Public transportation on weekends is a safe and inexpensive option for young people going out, and makes optimal use of the huge funding that the taxpayer is providing. It will reduce traffic accidents on weekends and convince more people not to buy a car, thereby reducing congestion on Israel’s roads.
Now at 9.5 million, Israel’s population is forecast to reach 15 million by 2048. That means more congestion, a heavier burden on infrastructure and enormous challenges for employment and housing. Without public transportation on the Sabbath, we will find ourselves in transportation hell.