A streetcar named...

As the dig begins, ‘Metro’ presents Part II in the continuing saga of construction of the Tel Aviv light rail.

Work on the Tel Aviv light rail. (photo credit: COURTESY NTA)
Work on the Tel Aviv light rail.
(photo credit: COURTESY NTA)
Okay, people. Get ready, this is it. We know they’ve said it before, but this time they really mean it. The “big dig” is about to begin: Light rail transit is coming to Tel Aviv, and work to make that dream a reality has already started.
The Metropolitan Tel Aviv Area Rapid Transit System, consisting of a far-reaching network of light rail and bus rapid transit, will eventually cover much, if not most, of central Israel. Expected to include eight lines – red, green, purple, brown, yellow, pink, blue and orange – the system will drastically alter the country’s urban landscape and affect the lives of millions of citizens, hopefully for the better.
Plans for “trams,” “trolleys,” “street - cars,” “Decauville light railways,” “light rail vehicles,” or whatever one wishes to call them, have been enthusiastically proposed and then quietly shelved since before there was a State of Israel, or even a Tel Aviv.
The first proposals were put forth under Ottoman rule in 1892, a little more than two months after the inauguration of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. Those plans – which called for a tramway between southern and northeastern Jaffa, with connecting spur lines to the port and the eastern orchards – were considered uneconomical and soon abandoned.
A later plan called for a light rail from Jaffa to the burgeoning Jewish settlements of Rishon Lezion and Petah Tikva. This, too, was shelved.
During World War I, the Turks actually built a Decauville, or narrow-gauge railway, in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, running from Jaffa Port to the Yarkon River. It operated for about 10 years before being dismantled.
In the mid-1960s, there were plans for a subway system. This would have been the second such system in the Middle East, following the Carmelit in Haifa, which began to operate in 1959. The first – and as it turned out, only – subway station in Tel Aviv was dug under the Shalom Tower in the 1960s, but that plan was unceremoniously abandoned shortly thereafter.
The vision changed from a subway to a light rail system in 2000, with numerous false starts, missteps, delays, restarts, financial problems and changes of plan ever since.
But now, work on the Red Line, the system’s first segment, has finally begun under the joint auspices of the Transportation Ministry and the government-run Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd. (NTA).
The Red Line is expected to be the beating heart of the entire transit system. It will pass through the metropolitan region’s most densely populated and traffic-congested areas, running from the central bus station in Petah Tikva, past the Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus, along Jabotinsky Street in Bnei Brak, and through Ramat Gan. It will continue to Tel Aviv Savidor Merkaz (Central) railway station, roll along Menachem Begin Road near the Azrieli Center, head south of the Kirya military headquarters to Manshiya, then along Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, ending in southern Bat Yam.
The Red Line will stop at 34 stations along its route, 10 of them underground. The distance between above-ground stations will be 500 meters, while that between underground stations will be 1 km.
“Work actually began a few months ago,” says ministry spokeswoman Ma’ayan Sarig. “We started working in places where people don’t really see; nobody really knows how much work has already been done. In [Petah Tikva residential neighborhood] Em Hamoshavot and on Herzl Street in Petah Tikva and in Tel Aviv, we have been working in places behind the major scenes. So people don’t see it and aren’t aware of it, and it doesn’t disturb normal life, because no one notices it going on. But now we are taking it to the next level.”
It’s a pretty good bet that people will notice this “next level,” which will affect traffic throughout Tel Aviv. The worst disruption is expected to stem from construction of the Carlebach station, during which traffic will be redirected from Begin, Carlebach, Hamasger, Lincoln, Hata’asiya, Hamelacha, Yitzhak Sadeh and Rival streets. The iconic Carlebach Bridge, opposite Beit Ma’ariv, will be demolished and replaced by an underpass.
Construction of the Allenby underground station will cause its share of traffic disruptions as well. Yehuda Halevi Street will be closed to traffic, which will be redirected to Mikve Israel Street. The works – and ensuing traffic changes – are expected to continue until 2021.
DO WE really need this aggravation? According to Sarig, the answer is yes.
“The Dan region in general is a very problematic place in terms of transportation and public transportation,” she says. “It’s packed, it’s full, and unless you’re on a motorcycle, you can barely move through a city. It’s crazy, and it’s not like that all over the country. Jerusalem has a light rail system that works beautifully. We have more than 100,000 people using it every day. In Haifa, we have the Carmel - it, which also works well. But in Tel Aviv, we don’t have anything.”
As such, she continues, “we have to bring Tel Aviv into the modern world. Every metropolis in the modern world has a subway; we must have one. In the years to come, Tel Aviv is going to be packed. You will not be able to move; you will just sit motionless in cars and buses. We really need this.”
As far as technical expertise is concerned, the project appears to be in capable hands. British civil engineer Anthony Burchell, graduate of the University of Leeds, has either worked on or managed subway systems in Hong Kong, Singapore, Cairo, Delhi, Dubai and Qatar.
“Then I was asked to come to Tel Aviv,” he recounts. “My wife jumped at the chance.”
He is now project director of the Red Line.
With work started this week, what can we expect to see first? “Well, they’ve actually done a lot of the not-so-exotic or not-so-sexy work already,” says Burchell. “They’ve been clearing utilities; there are three tunneling shafts that have been done; the depot has started, and one of the stations, at Em Hamoshavot, has been started. The really intrusive work, things the public will notice, are about to start.”
According to the project director, “the first thing people will notice is fences go - ing up, to fence off the sites. Then there will be traffic diversion. On Allenby, for example, there will be a traffic diversion. The road will be closed. Then, in fact, the first big civil works will be the diaphragm walls for each of our underground stations. To construct them safely, to minimize movement of the buildings, we actually put the walls in first. This way you’ve got a secure box, so then you can excavate safely inside those walls. People will start seeing this happening toward the end of this year. But sooner than that, the Carlebach Bridge will have to come down in order to clear that site.”
Despite these developments, Sarig acknowledges that many people still don’t seem to believe that the system will ever be built.
“Let me take you back a bit,” she says. “The whole story of the light rail is that nobody believed it was going to happen – and nobody believes it now. Because for around 50 or so years, every transportation minister, every prime minister, went out into the field and they all promised to do it. They all said, ‘Now is the time to do it,’ but it never happened. So the public has become fed up with the promises and wants to see things get done.”
She says that throughout the two years she has worked with Transportation Minister Israel Katz, “whenever someone has asked him, ‘What about the light rail? Is it happening?’ he has said, ‘Talk to me in August. You’re going to be amazed. You’re going to see the Carlebach Bridge come down, and you’ll know that it’s happening.’” Burchell agrees.
“To some extent, it’s like when I worked in Delhi,” he says. “India had only built one metro, in Calcutta, and it took them 22 years. When the Delhi project started, people were saying that it would never happen, that people had been talking about it for years, but it would never be built. I said, ‘Believe me, once it begins, then everything else will roll out.’ And that’s exactly what happened. We opened Delhi within five years, and now they’re on their Line 3, for a current total of 50 or 60 km. of metro.”
Planners of the Red Line initially wanted to run the entire system underground, similar to the plans drawn up in the mid- 1960s.
"The minister really wanted the line to go underground,” says Sarig. “But it’s simply not possible because of the infrastructure of Tel Aviv. Some places, you just can’t do it. But he did tell the NTA that they had to make as much of the line as possible go underground.”
Burchell is quick to point out the advantages of this.
“With cities, it’s a combination,” he explains. “You don’t want to sterilize your ground space if you can help it. If you put a surface metro running through a city, you do sterilize that area. By ‘sterilize,’ I mean you can’t develop over the top of it. If it’s below ground, you can put a road on top of it. You can actually put buildings on top of it, or green spaces; you can use that land. Yes, it’s more expensive underground, but I think it keeps it out of the way and al - lows city planners to develop any way they want to.”
Planners recognize that both digging for the subway stations, and closing streets to traffic for the construction of surface lines will be equally disruptive.
Regarding the former, Burchell explains that “there are two types of tun - neling. One is bore tunneling, using machines which go down a shaft, work underground, and you don’t see anything at all. Most of our tunneling will actually be bore tunneling, for the lines between the stations. The other type of tunneling is one where you do the walls first and then excavate from the ground surface, dig down, build a structure and then cover over it again. That is called ‘cut and cover.’ The places where we’ll be doing cut and cover is at the stations.”
However, all 10 underground stations will be built concurrently. Burchell explains that constructing each of these large three-level stations will be like making a high-rise building.
As for closing streets, Sarig says that the NTA “has been meeting with businesspeople for months to work out ways to make the construction less disruptive, like keeping pedestrian walkways open and ensuring that goods can be brought into and out of stores. We are also giving them financial advisers to help them get through the hard times. Listen, we are not lying. It’s going to be very hard. Tel Aviv is going to have a very hard time in the next six years.”
Sarig adds that many of the businesses that will be affected by those six years of construction are asking for a reduction in their arnona , or municipal taxes.
“They are right to ask for this. Just last week at the Knesset, the minister said that it has to happen, and that we have to find any way we can to make it happen, so that these peo - ple will not have to pay full price while much of the city is shutting down. Right now, it’s not happening. We’re trying to make it work with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.”
Whether there will be an arnona discount for those merchants remains to be seen; municipality officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
ONE MERCHANT likely to be affected is Yosef Halper, the American-born owner and operator of Halper’s Books, a popular English-language second - hand bookshop on Allenby Street. His thoughts about the impending work express the gamut of opinions one hears on the thoroughfare.
“As a bookstore owner, I’m worried about the logistics of reaching the store, of bringing books into the shop, of making and receiving deliveries of large quantities of books. This will be a lot to deal with, and I’m concerned that the construction will make things worse,” he says.
“But on the other hand, as a bicycle commuter, I’m in favor of it. There will be less traffic, less danger, less fumes,” he continues. “And as an environmen - talist, I’m in favor of it. Jabotinsky Street is a disaster; the fumes are literally destroying the buildings with all that soot. The buildings are crumbling along that street, from the buses rumbling, and the noise and the fumes. It’s terrible, you can barely breathe there. It’s like Dante’s hell; the whole stretch from Bnei Brak is just horrible, dirty and disgusting. So if the light rail will lessen the car and bus traffic into the city, and make it cleaner and quieter, then I’m sure it will be good for everybody.”
In summary, he says, “I guess in the long run it’s a good thing. In the short term, we’re going to eat a lot of dust.”
The general mood of the area is perhaps best expressed by a doctor with a busy practice in nephrology and internal medicine on Nahmani Street, not far from Allenby. Asked whether he and his neighbors will likely be affected by construction of the light rail, the doctor – who asks that his name not be mentioned – almost shouts, “Yes!” Asked exactly how it will affect them, he shrugs his shoulders and replies, “We don’t know.”
At a total projected cost to the taxpayer of NIS 16.1 billion, the Red Line will not be cheap. Yet it will promise a lot more bang for our buck than comparable systems in other countries.
Says NTA spokesman Daniel Cogan: “We looked at how other large-scale civil engineering projects have been done, both here in Israel and internationally, and we are trying very hard to do it better. One example is park-and-ride facilities. We will be making more of these than were made in Singapore for their metro. Also, at the first stage, we are building four parking areas, providing a total of 4,000 new parking spaces, for people who will not be able to drive into the construction areas.”
Cogan notes that there will also be more trains into Tel Aviv – 4,500 seats – which will enable people to leave their cars at home and use public transportation. There will also be shuttle lines from train stations to areas closed for construction, as well as special hourly shuttles for the disabled.
So, looking back at all of this in six or seven years, are we likely to think that the new transit system was worth all the time, money, effort and angst? “I’m sure we will,” Sarig asserts. “I know that I will. Listen, I live on Allenby Street. It’s going to get closed, and I’m going to die. I’m sure that at the end of the work, people will acknowledge that it was worth the trouble. It’s so hard to commute now, and this project will make it so much easier. I’m sure that people are going to love it.”