The coastal city is meant to have three new rail lines by 2024, but critics say the project is unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy, unresponsive to public concerns and falling behind schedule
Naama Riba | Jun. 5, 2018

Behind Wolfson Park in east Tel Aviv, you’ll find a small, quiet street that looks like a suburban parking area. But this little road, “1063 Street,” is slated to become a major transportation artery, linking two major roads to the Purple Line on the Tel Aviv Light Rail.

Just over two months ago, local residents learned that tranquillity wasn’t the only thing they were going to lose. “Some of the residents found notices from NTA [Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd., the company responsible for the light rail project] hung on the entrances of their homes, saying their yards were going to be expropriated,” says Rivka Duani, chairwoman of a local neighborhood group in Ramat Hatayasim. “We didn’t know the train would pass right next to our homes, and that not only our yards would be damaged but also part of Wolfson Park.”

Duani says she’s a public transportation user, supports mass transit and doesn’t object to the construction of the Purple Line. But the planning is lacking, she says – and she isn’t just referring to track-laying delays that have dogged the project. “They are turning a suburban street into a busy road, and they didn’t inform us about the route and are denying us any opportunity to be heard,” she says.

In many ways, 1063 Street is the story of many residents who are being impacted, or will be impacted, by the Tel Aviv Light Rail. Over the years, delays and changes to the Red Line – the one currently being built – have attracted most media attention. But just three years after that line is set to open in 2021, two further lines (the Green and Purple ones) are supposed to be operational. Many observers say there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of that happening.

Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz has repeatedly said work on the second and third lines is supposed to start during 2018, but that doesn’t look likely.

For example, land expropriation along the routes has only just begun. Detailed plans are still being worked on, and it is only once these are completed that NTA can start moving the power, telephone and sewage lines – a process that could take up to two years.

Although NTA’s website sets 2024 as the goal for inauguration of the new lines, officials are not even prepared to commit to a date when work will start. Senior officials in the respective authorities are not able to give many more details – primarily, they say, because they don’t know any: No one is updating them on the timetable.

Those prepared to venture a guess say that, best case scenario, the track-laying will begin in 2022, which would push completion back to at least 2026.

Forecasts and reality

The Red Line will connect Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, and Bat Yam to the south, via Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Anyone walking through Tel Aviv and witnessing the activity at construction sites along the route might believe that at least this line will be ready by 2021. But here, too, not everyone is confident the forecasts tally with the reality.

“The project is going to be finished with significant delays,” warns Elad Man, legal adviser for the Hatzlacha association, which obtained timetables and the results of tenders through a freedom of information request. He says NTA reversed the order of work to make it look as if things are progressing. “They advanced the tunnel-building stage before finishing work at the stations,” he explains.

Man says advancing the tunnel excavations was “a brilliant move” image-wise. But in practice, reversing the order forced work on the stations to come to a halt. “This change caused costs on the project to rise and to additional delays,” he says. “These delays are likely to expose the state to be sued for compensation by various agencies.”

But even if the Red Line is completed by 2021, there must be at least three lines in operation if the logjammed roads in the Greater Tel Aviv area are to be alleviated.

The Green Line will run from Rishon Letzion and Holon (south of Tel Aviv), passing through the city center en route to Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon further north. But few people are aware that the route is slated to run alongside the city’s “green lung,” Yarkon Park, and actually damage parts of it.

The route is meant to include huge bridges, some as much as four stories high. Aside from pedestrians, one of the plan’s “victims” is the Etgarim Center (aka Shneur House, named after the late son of former Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin), which is located in the northern section of the park, near Ramat Hahayal.

The decision to demolish the center, which only opened in 2013, received scant coverage in the minutes of the district planning committee meeting at which it was made. According to Avner Balkany, CEO of the Etgarim nonprofit – which helps disabled youth and adults engage in sports – no one asked the organization about it: “They informed us that the line is passing through there and they have to demolish” the center. Balkany says the Tel Aviv municipality is supporting his efforts to find a new site for the center while negotiations for compensation are still ongoing.

As in Ramat Hatayasim, here and elsewhere, the finger can be pointed not just at the NTA but also at Israel’s planning system, which has been inherited from the British Mandate era. The planning authorities are not required to involve the public in planning procedures; it’s only after they are completed that the public can express any objections. Practically speaking, by this stage it’s usually too late to have any impact.

All about the route

A visit to the NTA website offers lots of maps and facts about the light rail, but it does not provide answers to questions about how it makes its decisions or what its guidelines are. Various officials involved in planning say that NTA’s plans don’t take trees, bus stops, sidewalks or courtyards into account; it’s all about the route. For example, dozens of ficus trees (including 26 mature ones) are marked for removal from Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa to make way for part of the Red Line.

A group of local residents recruited architect Philip Brandeis to formulate an alternative plan, which would reposition three stations and preserve the trees. “We proposed moving the stations a few dozen meters to areas that are empty of trees or have young trees,” recounts Galia Hanoch Roeh, director of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

About three weeks ago, NTA representatives came to discuss the matter at an environmental committee meeting in the municipality. The committee’s report says it expects the NTA to seriously consider the alternative proposal and set another meeting.

Another struggle is taking place in neighboring Ramat Gan, on Aluf Sade Street. The Purple Line is meant to pass along the edge of the city, but observers say that with no subway lines on the horizon, “this [single] line won’t be able to meet the demand.” Ramat Gan resident Yair Shahar says the French company that NTA hired also pointed out this problem. “It’s doomed to certain failure,” Shahar warns.

But beyond that, its construction in the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare will also create traffic chaos. The Ramat Gan municipality supports this position and has joined with residents to petition the High Court of Justice over a change of route. The petitioners suggested an alternative route that included subterranean track at the Yarden-Aluf Sade junction and a bridge over Rabin Road. Although the High Court ruled in NTA’s favor in March, the municipality has vowed to continue fighting.

Back in Tel Aviv, there are other major concerns – ironically, some of them involving the area around City Hall itself. When work on the Green Line commences, Rabin Square is going to be closed, major traffic arteries closed and bus stops discontinued (for example, on Allenby Street, which is slated to become pedestrianized).

“We are constantly talking about the need to plan and build public transportation, but it can’t be that billions are invested without solutions for the interim period,” says Gil Yaakov, the director of public transportation advocacy organization 15 Minutes. “We do not get precise timetables and the public has no immediate solutions for the coming years,” he says.

So why are there no reliable work schedules? NTA told Haaretz it is not prepared to release any further information about the planning of the train system or possible timelines. And it wouldn’t say when its planning work on the Purple and Green lines would be completed. “When the process is over, you’ll hear about it,” a company spokesman said. The company refused to allow its CEO, Yehuda Bar-On, to be interviewed and did not respond to other questions.

The Transportation Ministry did not furnish any details about timelines, either. Katz’s spokesman did not even respond to questions about why the transport minister keeps announcing different launch dates when none of the professionals involved is willing to do so.

This lack of information makes it difficult for residents and elected officials alike.

“From time to time I read NTA’s press releases about some section advancing, but there really isn’t any transparency in the work procedures,” says Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi. “There are many planning stages for the Green Line – from general planning to execution – and throughout this process, there is zero attention being paid to the needs that arise from the field. We could justify the long planning process if we knew the complaints were being integrated, and if we knew we were getting a better product.”

PR own goal

Not only is the public not being informed of the timeline; other details are hard to come by, too. Nir Yariv, head of the “Open NTA” project, says there are some blueprints online but precious little information, and one needs special equipment to actually read the blueprints.

Holon city architect Aviad Mor, meanwhile, believes the problem comes down to public relations. “I don’t think it’s being celebrated enough,” he says. “I would have expected to see events, exhibitions, before the expropriation stage. Information about the project should be published so people understand that they’re part of something big.”

The Green Line is going to significantly affect his city and Mor has a message for those whose properties and amenities are going to suffer: “The public interest overrides the private one,” he says. “There are plenty of court rulings on this. It’s true there is fear of the unknown, but today people in Holon are leaving home and getting caught in traffic jams. The train is supposed to solve a big part of that.”

Mor remains optimistic about the day after the train arrives. “I think it’s an opportunity to adapt,” he says. “I’m optimistic that the light rail could have a positive effect on the look of the city.”

Upgrading the public space is definitely a goal of the light rail project, says city planner Dr. Yoav Lerman, cautioning that it must learn from previous mistakes. “When you look at the Metronit [rapid transit bus] project in Haifa, you see that the project didn’t improve Ha’atzmaut Street,” he says, referring to the downtown thoroughfare. “We need to maintain standards and add building rights along the light rail routes, which will improve the quality of life along them and raise the value of assets,” he says.