Israel's transport planning off the rails

Ayalon Highway  photo: Eyal Izhar

Despite Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz being nine years in the job, we still lack a coherent plan.

Let's start with the good news: the other week, the National Planning and Building Commission approved the construction of a fourth railway track along the Ayalon River. This project, which will probably be the most important transport project in the coming years, certainly in passenger trains, has passed another formal stage on its way to being carried out.

Almost every passenger railway route in Israel goes via the three tracks along the Ayalon Highway. Without a fourth track, only 28 trains an hour can be operated on all these routes. This means delays and intolerable crowding on trains, which further complicates efforts to relieve road congestion. Who wants to leave an air-conditioned private vehicle to travel crushed in a sweaty railway carriage? Furthermore, every additional new railway route detracts from the frequency of the existing routes. The preparations for opening the high-speed train to Jerusalem, for example, have forced Israel Railways to halt the operation of the line from the Rishonim station in Rishon LeZion to Tel Aviv. The high-speed route itself will be able to offer hundreds of thousands of passengers on it only two trains an hour, even at peak times.

The bad news is that construction of the new line will not be completed before 2025, and although things have started to move, the problem was known two decades ago, so why is it being addressed only now?

The answer is the lack of a guiding hand and long-term planning in Israeli transport, which leads to decisions being made late, and only when there is no choice. When the fourth track is built along the Ayalon River, it will probably not suffice for the growing number of railway passengers. The need for a fifth and sixth track has been discussed for years, but at the moment, beyond reports, there is not even a plan.

How does the Ministry of Transport plan the construction of roads and railway tracks? At present, the Ministry of Transport operates without an approved and up-to-date long-term national outline plan for a road network. "There are various trends in the right direction, but they do not amount to an overall perspective," says a transport sector source. "There is no comprehensive plan that includes all the factors that have to be taken into account."

The minister of transport prefers the outlying areas

The absence of transport planning in Israel is especially remarkable in view of the fact that Israel has had the same minister of transport for nine years. No other economic sector has enjoyed such stability, with a bulldozer of a minister whose capabilities in pushing projects are not disputed even by his enemies.

Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz first entered his position in 2009 as part of the second Netanyahu government. Quite a few changes have occurred in the transport sector since then, including the open skies policy in civil aviation, and the ports reform, which broke the monopoly of Israel's two largest ports, Haifa Port and Ashdod Port, for the first time.

Where public transport planning is concerned, however, it appears that Katz's priorities are distorted. Residents of outlying areas received from Katz - justifiably - high investment in management time and budgets, but residents of the central region have been neglected. "This minister prefers planning railways for outlying areas, such as the trains to Beit She'an and Beersheva, with very low cost effectiveness," a transport sector source told us. "A great deal of money was invested in these projects, but their revenue is very small. The money could have been invested more wisely."

Katz's first term in office was devoted to the Netivei Israel plan, which included huge investment in new railway lines, mainly for connecting communities in northern Israel to the central region: the Valley Train connected Beit She'an, and the Akko-Karmiel line connected the upper Galilee.

Plans for relieving congestion at the entrance to the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area did not win high priority from Katz. He decided to nationalize the Tel Aviv area light rail Red Line project, but allowed this essential project to be delayed for years because of unsuccessful management before taking the bull by the horns and bringing in the right people.

The same thing happened with the fourth Ayalon track. Here, too, precious years were wasted because of fruitless arguments between bureaucrats and regulators - arguments that could have been decided quickly, had Katz summoned all the parties to his office and banged his fist on the table, for which he has a great talent.

Is the reason for Katz's preferences political? Did it cross his mind that places like Afula, Beit She'an, and Kiryat Shemona are Likud strongholds? The answer is presumably yes. Is this the reason that the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area, whose residents vote more for the center and left, got the cold shoulder from Katz? Possibly, but this certainly was not the only reason, and perhaps not the main one.

Transport industry sources assert that Katz thinks in terms of photo opportunities. The projects on which he focused in his first term were all slated for completion before the end of his term and the next election. Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area mass transit programs were scheduled to continue for at least two terms.

Had Katz known that he would stay in his job for at least three terms, he would very likely have chosen to begin in Tel Aviv.

It appears that the Ministry of Transport and Katz have recently been doing their very best to try to reduce the damage resulting from the transport situation - congestion on the roads and inefficient public transportation, with trenchant criticism by important research organizations breathing down their necks. Only a month ago, the OECD, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bank of Israel all stated that road congestion in Israel was among the worst in the developed countries.

The Ministry of Transport recently announced a cut in the price of public transport by extending use of the Rav Kav travel card to interurban bus routes. This is expected to encourage travel on public transport, except that such travel is uncomfortable and service is poor.

The Ministry of Transport also recently announced the beginning of two important projects: the pilot stage of Going Green 3 and the beginning of a shared trips pilot on public transport lanes. Both of these very important projects are designed to improve road congestion, but only several years from now. Up until then, it appears that we will continue sitting in traffic jams and preferring a private car to public transport.

In transport planning, improvement at the metropolitan level is evident. Jerusalem is an example of a city with an overall planning perspective in the shape of JNET, five light rail lines designed to be operated as a network by a single concessionaire. According to professional sources, however, planning at the metropolitan level is not coordinated with planning at the national level.

The cyber revolution and traffic jams

Preparation of a national outline plan is liable to take years. In the past decade, National Outline Plan 42 was drawn up, which addressed both roads and railways, but it was never finished and it is not binding. The Ministry of Transport has been toiling over this plan since 2008.

The plan was intended to replace National Outline Plan 3 - the national outline plan for roads dating back to 1976, and National Outline Plan 23, which is "newer" - dating to 1986. The target year for these plans is 2040, but they are based on old models that do not take into account likely future technological and behavioral changes.

The Ministry of Transport this year began tender proceedings for selecting a consultant to prepare a new traffic model integrating the various modes of transport that will deal with technological changes and their effect on travel habits. The model is not a substitute for a national outline plan; it is a supporting tool that will make it possible to better assess the necessity and benefit of future transportation projects without a policy outline. The previous plan on these lines currently used by the Ministry of Transport was drawn up in 2007.

Work on the transport master plan designed to predict the future transport needs in Israel through 2050 has already begun. Using data obtained from the mobile telephony companies, researchers are trying to map trips taken by private vehicles in Israel and to distinguish between the one-time trips and regular trips of various population groups. This will facilitate planning of more convenient and efficient public transport in the near future.

This plan is also supposed to take into account technological and behavioral changes expected to occur in the future. "We can already say that if people do not change their travel routines, we will be in for a huge disaster," asserts a transport industry source. "Where behavioral changes are concerned, the number of trips in Israel is expected to decrease because of the cyber revolution.

"This has significant potential in its effect on road congestion, for example working near home in special work spaces through remote connection to the place of work. If someone works at home or nearby even once a week instead of traveling to work, this will already greatly relieve traffic jams."

The source added that technological potential would also impact the future transportation situation in Israel, with the introduction of autonomous vehicles being one of the most important of these factors, making it possible to plan smarter and more convenient public transport.

Another change we can expect is what is called in professional jargon "demand management." This is the Going Green project, now in the pilot stage, which is expected to end only in another decade. This project is aimed at encouraging drivers to change their travel routines through monetary incentives. A driver who refrains from traveling on crowded roads at peak hours will receive monetary benefits and may even be exempted from paying the annual vehicle license fee.

Although these changes are projected to reduce road congestion, the level of motorization will only increase. The motorization rate in Israel currently stands at 350 vehicles per 1,000 people, projected to rise to 430 per 1,000 in 2040. No one doubts that even if public transport improves immensely, the level of motorization will rise as a result of the projected increase in the standard of living. Most of the increase is likely to be in areas remote from central Israel and in the Arab sector. The assumption is that even in 2050, the motorization level in Israel will not reach that in Europe, because the age structure in Israel is different, with more children per family.

It is possible that the technological changes, combined with behavioral changes, will reduce the need for massive infrastructure construction, such as light railways; this reinforces and highlights the need to prepare a strategic plan that will include the projected changes in the economy.

Ministry of Transport: In the midst of an infrastructure revolution

The Ministry of Transport said in response, "These claims are absolutely unfounded. The Ministry of Transport is in the midst of the greatest infrastructure revolution in Israel's history. It should be borne in mind, however, that the problems of 70 years cannot be solved even in seven years.

"The ministry is current promoting over NIS 100 billion in infrastructure projects designed to cope with the traffic loads in large metropolises in general, and in the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area in particular. Among other things, a mass transit system of elevated trains and subways is being constructed throughout the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area at a cost of over NIS 50 billion. High-speed lanes are now being planned for every entrance to Tel Aviv, as well as a network of urban and interurban public transport lanes, at a cost of NIS 10 billion.

"Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz has carried out plans that were delayed for many years, including nationalization of the Red Line and a fourth track along the Ayalon. The Minister of Transport is currently promoting a fifth and sixth Ayalon track at a cost of tens of billions of shekels."

Responding to allegations concerning railways in the outlying areas, the Ministry of Transport says that number of passengers on these lines far exceeds the forecasts of experts who predicted that the lines would fail.

Concerning the new national outline plan for transport, the statement says, "The Ministry of Transport has been working towards approval of the plans with all the relevant parties for several years. Keep in mind, however, that this is a very difficult process involving conflicting interests of various entities and many approvals by all the planning authorities. In the course of the national outline plan, the Planning Administration's policy was changed, which required a reassessment of important parts of the plan."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 23, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Ayalon Highway  photo: Eyal Izhar
Ayalon Highway photo: Eyal Izhar
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