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The Road Not Taken

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“The road climbing from Jaffa to Jerusalem is all but complete,” reported in 1869 an excited Ha-Levanon, the Promised Land’s Hebrew daily those days, following an engineering effort that lasted a decade, and now sparked a transport revolution:

“Two horse-drawn wagons depart and return every day, and the journey lasts [a mere] 10 hours because at midway, at Sha’ar Ha-Gay, they change the horses.”

Today that mountain pass cradles a six-lane artery whose western end – where Ottoman horses once trotted in solitude – shoulders daily 133,000 vehicles, an emblem of an increasingly motorized and congested Jewish state whose roads are now the most crowded in the developed world.

From Haifa in the north to Beersheba in the south and Jerusalem in the east, rush-hour traffic jams have become part of daily life in Israel, at an increasingly hefty economic cost.

Along Route 1 outside Ben-Gurion Airport, average midweek driving speed toward 9 am is 14 kilometers per hour, according to Transport Ministry data. Unlike its role in the Ottoman era, when it served hardly 50,000 inhabitants in the two forlorn towns on its opposite ends, now this east-west axis lynchpins 16 cities , not counting dozens more lurking just beyond them.

Things are even worse in the north-south axis that intersects Route 1, the 8-lane Ayalon Thruway that runs through Tel Aviv and shoulders daily 750,000 vehicles. In this thoroughfare’s southern part, between the city of Holon and the Hagana train station, rush-hour traffic averages 12 kmh.

The situation is not much better elsewhere along the coastal plain. In major interchanges north of Tel Aviv, like Glilot, Morasha, and Poleg, motorists can spend an hour while advancing hardly 5 kilometers.

Inside Tel Aviv, where more than half-a-million non-local cars arrive daily, daytime driving is a frustrating exercise in labyrinthine deceleration that starkly contrasts the modernity of the surrounding spires of glass and steel.

The jams are costing the economy an annual NIS 25 billion in wasted gasoline and work hours, according to the Treasury, and the price is set to spike in upcoming years.

“A car for every worker,” the memorable election slogan that sounded like fantasy when Shimon Peres coined it in 1965 – is now reality, and also a curse.

ISRAEL’S TRAFFIC JAMS are not of the dramatic sort, like Germany’s in Easter 1990, when families from its former East and West flocked to visit each other, creating in some border passes 30-mile-long lines; or the Woodstock Festival’s in 1969, when half-a-million people clogged upstate New York’s highways; or Chicago’s in 2011, when a sudden 20-inch snowfall trapped drivers for 12 hours in hundreds of frozen cars along Lake Shore Drive.

Israel’s jams are neither momentary nor local; they are national and endemic, plaguing not only the coastal plain, but also places well to its east, like Um El-Fahm, where Route 65 approaches the Jezreel Valley, and like Jerusalem, where employees can waste 45 minutes crawling from the Begin thruway’s Har Hotzvim exit to the nearby campuses of Teva, Cisco, and Mobileye.

The reasons for Israel’s congestion crisis are clear.

The first is demographics. Israel’s population is the developed world’s fastest growing. Moreover, most teenagers get licenses while many Israeli retirees never had licenses. This means the drivers’ population grows even faster than the overall population.

Then there is geography, whereby an already small country’s already growing population converges on a narrow urban strip that, besides being minuscule, is flanked by the sea on its one side and by the mountainous West Bank on the other.

Then there is prosperity, which has made car ownership cheap soar since 2000 by nearly 80 percent. In the past year Israelis bought every month an average 25,000 new cars and trucks.

Finally, there is personal finance. Faced with an increasingly confident middle class, auto dealerships have been offering car-purchase loans near-zero interest rates. The owners of some 700,000 vehicles in Israel are believed to collectively owe the banking industry NIS 40 billion.

Still, all these conditions are surmountable from the viewpoint of traffic planning. The problem is that recent decades’ infrastructure frenzy focused on road construction and neglected public transportation.

The turning point was 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin made transport modernization a national priority, an unprecedented policy aim for an Israeli prime minister.

The consequent doubling of existing roads like those between Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem; the construction of new highways like the cross-country Route 6; the proliferation of spaghetti junctions throughout the country; and the completion of the new Ben-Gurion Airport – collectively reflected a new resolve to close the transportation gap between Israel and the rest of the developed world.

A quarter-century later this part of Israeli transport’s journey to the future is approaching its terminus.

New highways become clogged soon after being festively opened. That, for instance, is what happened after January’s inauguration of the Harel tunnels outside Jerusalem, uphill from that Ottoman horse-replacement station, where the highway now drills through the Castel Mountain and then crosses a multilane bridge that replaced the notoriously sharp Motza Curve in the underlying ravine.

These changes, along with the highway’s expansion at the mountain pass, have made driving considerably safer and smoother, but they did not undo the rush-hour jams at Jerusalem’s entrance.

That is also what happened following the completion last April of Route 531, a 14-km east-west artery that links the Cross Israel Highway with the coastal Route 2. Though it is an impressive continuum of 12 interchanges and 36 bridges and tunnels – the jams remained unimpressed.

Technically, congestion persists because car purchasing outpaces road construction. Over the past half-decade Israelis’ new-cars purchases grew annually by an average 4 percent, while new-road construction grew annually only by 1.8 percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

However, this prism is misleading, because in the center there simply is no longer room for new highways. Outstanding mega-projects still in the works – like a tunneled shortcut from Motza to southern Jerusalem, or the Cross Israel Highway’s extension to the Upper Galilee – are the exceptions.

In all, the road construction revolution that Rabin launched and his five successors continued – has exhausted itself.

The last of those successors, Benjamin Netanyahu, has paved more than 1,000 km worth of highways, which may explain his frustration when he told staffers during a Passover-eve toast ceremony last spring: “Where they [the media] see jams I see new interchanges.”

Understandable though it is, Netanyahu’s self-congratulation echoes a 25-year road-construction drive that has reached its twilight, and must now be replaced by a new revolution. The situation whereby thousands of cars containing just one person cram the roads because public transport is slow, crowded, infrequent and poorly located – has brought Israeli transport to the brink of catastrophe.

THE NEW GOAL will be a mass-transit revolution that will sharply reduce private-car usage.

This will be about fast trains, each of which will suck up to 1,000 cars off the highways, and lights trains, super-buses, and subways that will remove drivers from urban arteries.

This quest is now accepted by all, as reflected in the budgetary shift from road construction to public transport, through a cluster of projects with a collective NIS 50 billion allocation.

The good news is that the launch of this revolution is already underway, on both its levels: intercity trains and urban metros. The bad news is that it will take decades to complete.

The intercity revolution will be announced with a bang in a year, when Israel’s first fast train will swoosh from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

An internationally unique project, due to its need to climb at 180 kmh an altitude of more than 700 meters along a path of hardly 50 kilometers, the 28-minute ride will leave every 15 minutes and carry daily 70,000 passengers.

While siphoning thousands of cars from Israel’s busiest east-west highway, this event will be pivotal mentally and politically.

Mentally, affluent people who have not used public transportation for decades will return to it, thus giving it new respectability. Politically, the commuters’ voting by the feet will convince elected officials that the people want modern transportation, and may reward those who deliver it.

Even now, it is clear that Rabin’s record as a highway builder is the part of his legacy that all Israelis admire, and that current Transport Minister Yisrael Katz is earning political capital for having built during more than eight years in this office more roads than any politician in Israeli history.

The new fast train will spawn a broader railway revolution. Psychologically, the public will grow to expect similar speed and punctuality elsewhere. Mechanically, the mountainous fast-train’s electric powering – the first in Israel – will spread to the coast.

The coastal lines will be electrified by the end of this decade through a NIS 3.2 billion purchase of electric cars, thanks to which the ride between Tel Aviv and Haifa will next decade shorten from nearly an hour to just over half-an-hour.

Coupled with the recently opened lines from Haifa across the Jezreel Valley to Beit-Shean, and from Acre through the Lower Galilee to Karmiel, the railway system is planned to later stretch further north, to Safed and Kiryat Shmona, and ultimately be crowned by a line to Eilat.

When all is completed a quarter-century from now, annual intercity train rides will have multiplied from 60 to 300 million, according to Israel Railways’ planners.

Distant though this aftermath now seems – its completion still seems an eon nearer than the Tel Aviv metro system’s.

TWO YEARS since the demolition of downtown Tel Aviv’s Ma’ariv Bridge, which marked the beginning of its subway’s construction, work is progressing on schedule.

Stretching 24 kilometers from Ramat Gan to Bat Yam, what the planners call the Red Line is scheduled to start running in 2021 along 24 stations, ten of them underground.

Coupled with Jerusalem’s lone light railway line, these are the forerunners of a metropolitan mass-transit revolution.

In the coastal plain 8 lines – 5 light trains and 3 rapid buses – will interconnect 17 cities from Netanya to Rehovot along 213 kilometers dotted by 341 stations. In Jerusalem seven lines, including the existing one, are planned to span 83 kilometers and 180 stations by 2030.

However, in typical Israeli fashion both schemes have been a continuum of revisions, delays, retractions, and alterations.

First, the Treasury refused to finance a fully-fledged Tel Aviv subway, preferring a cheaper, above ground alternative. The result was the hybrid compilation of subways, light railways and rapid buses that is now being built.

Then precious years were wasted on a build-operate-transfer tender for the Red Line, whose winner proved to lack the capital that the scheme demanded. The government then decided to assign the project to state-owned public-works company Neta, which now runs the project with a network of subcontractors.

Then controversy flared between the Treasury and Tel Aviv’s municipality, which demanded that the planned line along Ibn Gvirol Street be shoved underground. After a period of paralysis the dispute was finally settled when Netanyahu interfered, by imposing City Hall’s demand on the Treasury.

Now a similar struggle is being waged by Ramat Gan’s municipality, which demands that the planned Violet Line be taken underground near the Diamond Exchange. At the same time, Jerusalem’s Blue Line from Gilo to Ramot, originally planned for rapid buses, has been changed to light rail. Work on the line has yet to begin.

Meanwhile, coastal-plain municipalities are slow to make way for new, public-transport lanes for which the government has allocated NIS 3 billion, because mayors now preparing for next year’s local elections fear voters will be angry as paving the lanes will become a residential hassle.

Planned to multiply the existing 50 kilometers of such lanes to an aggregate 330 km in cities from Ra’anana to Lod, this design will also ease traffic, as it will allow buses to drive faster than their current average speed of 16 kmh, among the lowest in the developed world.

Regardless of all these schemes, Neta issued a tender – won in October by France’s Systere – for the planning of three underground master-lines: a north-south line from Kfar Sava to Rehovot via Tel Aviv; a perpendicular line from Tel Aviv to Rosh Ha-Ayin; and a semi-circular line that will allow passage between these future arteries, and the light-railway system whose construction that has already begun.

This is besides a 22-kilometer underground line through which Israeli Railways plans to lead heavy trains under the Ayalon Thruway, whose existing rail lines will remain active, and in fact doubled.

In all, Israel’s long-overdue mass-transit revolution is far more complex than the highway revolution it is to succeed, and begs a coordinator whose task will be legally defined as a unified, national project.

Empowered to overrule the Treasury when it meddles in planning dilemmas, and to sidestep municipalities’ local and personal agendas, such a coordinator will set by law deadlines for all the mass transit milestones, most of which have yet to be dead-lined or even just fully approved.

Judging by the highway revolution’s precedent, the mass-transit revolution’s pace will accelerate the more it will unfold, and likely last through the middle of the century, after beginning to mature sometime next decade. Until then, rush-hour traffic will be not much faster than the Ottoman horses that once ambled leisurely between the coastal plain’s empty fields and Jerusalem’s distant peaks. (Jerusalem Report 15 December)


Middle Israel