When the total cost of the project is calculated, the Jerusalem light-rail project will be seen as one of Israel’s worst boondoggles.
By Moshe Arens

I am green with envy and raging mad. In Paris, they have just launched the service of automatic subway trains on Line 1, the city’s busiest, running from La Defense to Chateau de Vincennes; the trains, guided remotely from a control room, operate entirely on their own. And in Tel Aviv meanwhile, traffic congestion is getting worse by the day.

Already some 15 years ago, Paris began operating driverless trains on Line 14, the world’s first fully automatic underground line. It was that line that I came to inspect many years ago, when I was chairman of Metropolitan Transit Lines. The mayor of Tel Aviv at the time, Roni Milo, had asked me to take the position and supervise the planning and construction of a subway for the metropolitan Tel Aviv area. I knew that a subway for Tel Aviv had been no more than a political football for many years, so I took my time to study the project before accepting the position. Once it became clear to me that the only way to overcome the increasing traffic congestion in the area was by means of an underground line, I accepted.

Traffic studies of the area brought us to the conclusion that an underground line running from Petah Tikvah through Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv, and all the way to Bat Yam would provide substantial relief to the traffic bottlenecks that were clogging the streets of the area. It was clear to me that the line should be automatic, thus providing the increased flexibility and saving in labor costs that such a line can offer. After all, we know how to handle technology.

But I had not counted on the Budget Division of the Finance Ministry. Its representatives raised obstacles every step of the way. They tried to convince us that buses were the best solution and there was no need for a subway. They pointed to far-away places in Brazil where buses, they claimed, had solved all traffic problems. They brought in a professor to prove that our traffic simulations were wrong and that there would not be enough passengers to justify investment in a subway line.

When, in 1999, I was asked by the prime minister to return to the Defense Ministry, I left the Metropolitan Transit Lines still holding on to the hope that common sense would prevail over the penny-wise and pound-foolish bureaucrats at the Finance Ministry, and that within 10 years, the subway would be up and running.

But it was not to be. That group of bureaucrats had the Tel Aviv commuters by the throat. Interminable discussions and endless arguments wasted a lot of time and finally brought forth a compromise; and as is usually the case with compromises, it was the worst of all possible choices – not a subway and not a solution based on buses, but a hybrid system, a light-rail system that would run part of the way underground and part of the way on the streets of Tel Aviv.

In the meantime, the light-rail project in Jerusalem advanced at a snail’s pace, and demonstrated every step of the way, as if such proof was really needed, that the light-rail train, which is no more than a modern trolley car, simply takes up space on the city’s streets, and increases rather than decreases traffic congestion. When the total cost of the project is calculated, the Jerusalem light-rail project will be seen as one of Israel’s worst boondoggles.

You may think that we would have learned from the fiasco in Jerusalem and would apply the lessons to the Tel Aviv transportation project. One would imagine that Israel, which is admired in the world for its ingenuity in advanced technology projects, could do what the French have already done, and construct a proper automatic subway for the metropolitan Tel Aviv area. While we were debating the pros and cons, subway lines have already been built in Cairo and Athens. But it seems that nobody is willing to learn from the mistakes that have been made in Jerusalem. And like Ephraim Kishon’s “Blaumilch Canal,” the Tel Aviv light-rail project marches merrily along.