In an effort to pressure the government into putting the Tel Aviv light rail project back on track, mayors from across the Dan region took a bus ride from Petah Tikva to Tel Aviv on Sunday, driving along the route of the proposed track with a busload of reporters, environmental activists and aides.
"The 'red line' has been delayed for too long. The Israeli government has to show some leadership and make a decision to push forward a solution for public transportation in the Dan region," said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda'i, as he sat on the bus.
"We signed the agreement to construct the red line back in 2000, and since then it has seen ups and downs. The time has come for the government to put an end to the dithering and decide, either put everything into closing the financial details with the banks, or take over the construction of the project and put out a new bid for an operator," he said.
The red line is supposed to be the backbone of the metropolitan light rail system. Starting from Petah Tikva, the line is to run through Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv and Jaffa and ends up in Bat Yam. The line, which spans 23 kilometers (half of it underground), is slated to take passengers from one end to the other in about 45 minutes and is meant to carry nearly 400,000 passengers every day.
"The reality is that from both a social and an economical point of view, efficient public transportation is the most important enabler of employment, education and culture," said Hulda'i.
In October 2003, the red line was offered in an international tender on a BOT (build, operate and transfer) model for 32 years. In December 2006, the winner, Metropolitan Transportation Systems, was announced and given the green light to go ahead and start detailed planning and construction on the line, with completion scheduled for 2013.
It was then that the global financial crisis started to shake the world's economy and the bank from which MTS was meant to borrow the money for the project went bankrupt.
MTS has since found a group of banks willing to take on the huge loan, but the consortium is demanding more government guarantees.
For the last two years the planning and construction process has stopped, as the sides haggle about the terms of the loan. Meanwhile, the crash of Africa-Israel, one of the partners in MTS, has put the project further at risk.
Hulda'i said the partner municipalities would be willing to take the project on themselves.
"In the same way we took responsibility for the region's sewer system, we can take charge of the public transportation, all we need is the budget and the government's decision to let us go to work," said Hulda'i.
"In the time I've been mayor, there have been five prime ministers and who knows how many transportation ministers," he said. "It is time for the government to reach a decision once and for all."
"Citizens approach me every day wanting to now what's happening with the light rail," said Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayun. "After we solved all the issues between us and the operators and dug up a large portion of the city, residents want to know when the light rail will finally go ahead.
"I want to remind you that this train is meant to be a boost of fresh blood to the poorest among us. Who uses public transportation? It's those who don't own vehicles of their own and can't get around in other ways."
Ohayun warned that if the government did not see the importance of the project and did not make a final decision, the local authorities would be forced to take measures beyond merely talking.
Bnei Brak Mayor Yaakov Asher spoke of the train as a means of improving residents' quality of life. In Bnei Brak, the system is designed to be completely underground and Asher said he hoped that the "black line of smog and traffic," that currently runs through the city will be replaced by a "green line" of clean air and vegetation.
"The current situation in the metropolis is unacceptable," said Anat Barkai, the director of the central region of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "It is insufferable that the air quality is poor, that the open spaces are being taken over by automobiles and that our roads are congested with poisoning cars.
"It is unthinkable to freeze a project that has been planned and we've been waiting for, for so many years. In our view, this project is what can lead to a turnaround in Israel's downward trend."