Lack of gov't continuity blights transport planning

In the 15 years since the Jerusalem light rail was approved, there have been ten ministers of transport.

33 minutes at 8 am. This is the amount of time it takes, according to Ayalon Highways Ltd., to pass through Israel's most congested stretch of road - the 12-kilometer along Road 20 (the Ayalon Highway) from southern entrance into Tel Aviv from Road 1 (the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway).

This lost time carries a heavy economic price: the study estimates the loss at 12 workdays per traveler. The situation has improved slightly since this study was published, following the open of the fast lane along Road 1, but no relief in congestion can be expected at the other entrances to the city. 10 workdays are lost entering Tel Aviv from Road 5 via Glilot Interchange, and from the Road 20 entrance from Rishon LeZion and Road 2 (the Coastal Highway) from Herzliya. The average speed on the main roads in the Dan region (metropolitan Tel Aviv) during morning traffic does not surpass 40 km - the speed one rides a bicycle.

Public transportation in the Dan region is incapable of providing a suitable alternative to private cars. Metropolitan Tel Aviv has no subway, and construction on the light rail has just begun. The reform in bus routes is far from a success, and the suburban train provides only a partial solution. The train does not reach a large number of areas, and in some areas the frequency is low resulting from a lack of trains and from bottlenecks on tracks along Road 20.

Outside of the Dan region, the situation is even worse: until the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed rail line is completed, at some point towards the end of the decade, the only option available to those traveling to Jerusalem is the Turkish line that was built in 1892. Congestion on Road 1 will continue to worsen in the coming years, due to construction to widen the road between Sha'ar Hagai and the entrance to Jerusalem. The only road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that will remain relatively open is Road 443, with its abundance of roadblocks, because the road runs through the West Bank.

The general feeling that public transportation in Israel lags far behind its counterparts other advanced countries is backed by statistics: the rate roads are paved lags far behind the growth in the number of private cars. Israel is located at the bottom of OECD countries in meters of road per thousand residents. The corresponding statistic for trains puts Israel much lower than other small, densely populated countries like the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

The feeling that traffic is getting worse is also based on solid evidence. Since 1970, the number of private cars in Israel has grown by 1,100%, while the length of paved roads has only grown by 95%. The forecasts are not optimistic: by 2020 the number of private cars is expected to grow by another 30%, from 2.3 million to 3 million, according to the chief scientist at the Ministry of Transport.

Government instability

Who is responsible for the situation? Surprisingly, the lack of a budget is not the cause for the failure to develop transportation infrastructure. The government is not begrudged budgets for transportation, as it apparently does in other areas like health, education, and welfare. The transportation budget grew 84% between 2000 and 2008. Between 2005 and 2015, the government is due to allocate more than NIS 100 billion for the development of transportation infrastructure: NIS 21 billion was allocated to the Israel National Roads Company Ltd. in 2006-11, and another NIS 27 billion has been budgeted for the next five years. In 2004, Israel Railways initiated a NIS 30 billion multi-year plan to develop a network of tracks and trains, and an additional NIS 27.5 billion for roads and trains have been approved to pay for Minister of Transport Israel Katz's Israel highway plan to facilitate travel from the periphery to the center of Israel.

The numbers look very impressive on paper, but there is a dramatic gap between planning and execution. The actual amount invested in infrastructure has actually been falling over the last few years, according to a BDO Ziv Haft study for the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel. The gross rate of investment fell to 2.18% of GDP in 2010 from 2.6% in 2009. The average rate of investment in the early 2000s was 3.5%.

Most of the blame for hindering the development of infrastructure is due to government instability, at least according to government and public policy researchers like Golan Lahat. In an article that he recently published for the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, Lahat claims that the lack of governance adversely affects ministries' ability to function, and deepens the public's frustration.

Instead of developing and implementing long-term plans, ministries waste their time and resources putting out fires. One of the reasons for this is the high turnover of governments and transport ministers. Lahat cites the Jerusalem light rail as an example. In the 15 years that have passed since the route was approved in 1996, the government has changed six times, and there have been no fewer than ten transport ministers.

Lahat attributes the project's delays, and the disputes that have erupted between the government, the Jerusalem Municipality and franchisee CityPass, to the turnover of ministers, each of whom brought with him a change in policy and replacements in key positions. Israel's governance problem is also expressed itself in a different way.

The Finance Ministry's power

Lahat says that the second main culprit for the problem of governance in infrastructure is the Ministry of Finance. The first problem is over centralization in project management. Ministry of Finance officials intervene in every small decision, and preventing the flexibility needed to manage complex projects. "It is hard not to notice the difficulties resulting from the Ministry of Finance and its officials' political power," Lahat said.

Lahat also blames the Ministry of Finance for the decline in the quantity and quality of professional personnel at the Ministry of Transport, as well as in government companies. "The Ministry of Finance has been widening the already large gap in salaries for years, and the Ministry of Transport has been affected by a growing lack of civil engineers," he says. Low salaries are not the only problem hurting skilled manpower. The requirement to use tenders has turned the process of appointing senior personnel into a nightmare for applicants. An outstanding is the drama that developed following the appointment of a CEO for the light rail last year that turned into a scandal.

Lahat suggests giving the Ministry of Transport more authority and responsibility as one way to improve the situation, as well as giving it more flexibility in managing project budgets, deciding differential salary arrangements, and imposing personal responsibility on the minister and the director general in cases of professional failures, including non-implementation of work plans. He also suggests building more projects through joint public private partnerships (PPP), as was done for Road 6 (Cross-Israel Highway) and the Carmel tunnels. PPP was not used for the Jerusalem light rail.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 7, 2011

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011

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