"Think it through," is the message that Prof. Meir Heth, at 84 one of Israel's most senior economists, seeks to convey to the country's next generation of policy makers. The man who went through three financial crises in important positions in the economy, as Supervisor of Banks and chairman of Bank Leumi, said at an event to launch his book on the history of economic policy in Israel that the problem in Israel was the absence of long-term planning, the gas framework being a current case in point.
Since Heth spoke, a week ago, a further example has been added: the new plan for constructing an underground railway in Israel. On the one hand, it's very nice that Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz and the Ministry of Finance chiefs agree on a plan that will raise Tel Aviv to a level of infrastructure similar to that of London and Paris at the end of the nineteenth century; on the other hand, once more the way that has been chosen is patchwork, not comprehensive thinking and long-term planning such as we might have expected in a project that will shape the greater Tel Aviv area for decades to come.
Earlier this week, the minister of transport informed the public, in a well-orchestrated leak, of an ambitious plan to construct three new underground rail lines in greater Tel Aviv (Gush Dan). These metro lines will operate alongside three planned light-rail lines: the Red Line, already under construction, and the Green and Purple Lines, which are at advanced planning stages.
Let's start with the full half of the cup. The historic status of the declaration cannot be ignored: 40 years after then Minister of Transport Shimon Peres recommended the construction of a metro, finally both the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Transport have become convinced that there is no choice, and that Tel Aviv is worthy of a place among the cities with an underground railway (alongside Haifa).
One moment, you will ask, the railway now being constructed at building sites all over Tel Aviv, isn't that an underground railway? Well, that's the thing, it isn't. It's a light rail. True, it is supposed to travel partly underground, for a distance of twelve kilometers from the Jabotinsky junction on Route 4 to the beginning of Jerusalem Boulevard on the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but it is not a real underground railway.
It could perhaps be called a "light underground railway", an eccentric hybrid that will be operated by a human driver on the surface sections and by an automatic system on the underground sections (how exactly is still unclear). But this hybrid will only be able to carry half the quantity of passengers as an underground railway, at much lower frequencies and speeds than those of the London Underground and the Paris Metro.
This camel is the product of a political compromise between Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who insisted that within Tel Aviv it should be an underground railway, and the Ministry of Finance, which insisted on a light rail, with the usual argument that an underground railway project is too expensive and not economically worthwhile. Today, a fresh breeze is blowing in the Ministry of Finance, which has been converted to belief in mass transit projects, and that must be welcomed.
Here, though, we touch on the big problem in the announcement: the decision to construct the metro lines in addition to the existing light rail plan is again a cumbersome and damaging political compromise, again patchwork, that will lead to endless delays.
The story is approximately as follows. Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz wanted to implement the existing plan for seven light rail lines according to the same format as the Red Line, that is, with government finance and execution. The Ministry of Finance thought the existing plan was outdated, and that it failed to take into account deep changes in the Tel Aviv metropolis, such as the construction of the Azrieli towers and the evacuation of IDF camps and their transfer to the Negev.
Beyond that, the Ministry of Finance was aghast at the idea that a government company would construct the next lines, and claimed that the state did not have the money to finance them. The Ministry of Finance also believes, rightly, that networking greater Tel Aviv with rail lines entails setting up a metropolitan transport authority, but Katz objects, because such an authority would steal powers from central government. Therefore they compromise, and therefore they progress at the rate of two steps forward and one step back.
Look at the map of the planned lines, and ask yourselves: why construct two systems of rail lines in parallel, one light rail and the other underground? Why not give one consortium the franchise to set up all five new lines together?
The person who was behind the announcement and the article that was published about the new metro lines was aware of the criticism that could arise. Therefore, as a precaution, he took care to brief the reporter that this was really a clever idea and not a lame compromise: the idea of combining the light rail with an underground railway, the article said, actually replicates the highly-praised rail transport model of Berlin.
With all due respect to the creators of this brilliant spin, for the time being there are no great tidings here for the residents of Tel Aviv and its surroundings. This plan will yet change unrecognizably, and even the boldest speculators will not be rushing any time soon to buy properties along the planned metro line routes.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 25, 2016
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