The project that could help determine Israel's future

‘Metro’ investigates how work on the mammoth light rail project has impacted Tel Aviv, one year in.

Yehudit Rail Station in Tel Aviv under construction (photo credit: NTA)
Yehudit Rail Station in Tel Aviv under construction
(photo credit: NTA)
A little over a year ago – after years of broken promises, false starts and discarded plans – work on the Tel Aviv Light Rail system was set to begin. The manager of the Red Line, the first of several projected lines and the beating, urban heart of the system, told us, “They’ve actually done a lot of the not-so-exotic or not-so-sexy work already. 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.”
Now, a year later, Metro looks again at the project and asks, Where are we now? Where are we going with this massive public transportation project? “It’s more than a year since we began the work. I’m happy to say that we are working full steam,” says Sharon Volfer, project chief of staff at NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit, the company responsible for the system’s design and construction. “We are working in 10 underground stations. We are building the stations. Our target date is 2021. We are happy with the progress of the work, and we can say with confidence that we will be on time with this project.”
Says Maayan Sarig, a Transportation Ministry representative, “We just took reporters on a short tour of the light rail in Ramat Gan last week, because we want to show them the progress. We took them to Galei Gil, which is the first place where we’re going to put the tunnel-boring machines, or TBMs, as we call them.
There will be four TBMs at Galei Gil, ordered from China, that are going to dig two tunnels, two on the way to Ramat Gan and two on the way to Tel Aviv.”
Em Hamoshavot Rail Station
Em Hamoshavot Rail Station
The Galei Gil shaft, formerly the Galei Gil parking lot, is located between the intersection of the Ayalon Freeway and the Leonardo Hotel, in the little triangle between Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan. The work will involving drilling of walls to a depth of 55 meters underground, followed by the TBMs beginning the tunnel digging on both sides of the shaft, with a pair of machines tunneling toward Ramat Gan and another pair digging toward Tel Aviv. Volfer says there will eventually be eight of those TBM machines, all working simultaneously.
And, apparently, they are going to need them. Says Volfer, “I am happy to say that the government and the minister of transport saw the work we did on the Red Line and all the preparation we have done, and just last week the government approved a budget of NIS 30 billion for the Green Line and the Purple Line. For these two lines. This is one of the biggest budgets the government has given for public transportation. It’s now up to us to continue with the design. We have set the goal to start work on both of these lines in 2018. In 2018 we will be building the Red, the Green, and the Purple lines all at the same time.”
IF VOLFER is happy, Transportation Minister Israel Katz seems almost jubilant. Says Sarig, “During the tour, Minister Katz said that after one year we can definitely see that the decision to go ahead with the project was right, and that the work is progressing. He also recalled everyone’s worst fears when we started a year ago that traffic would be backed up all the way to Netanya and that the city would be overrun with rats disturbed by the underground digging. The big traffic problems didn’t happen and not one rat has been found in the city.”
Although we thus far seem to have been spared the traffic nightmares many people feared and what others were variously calling the coming “ratmageddon” or “ratpocalypse,” some issues that needed to be resolved have not yet been fixed.
One notable example is the reduction in arnona, or municipal taxes, that businesses affected by the construction were asking for. Sarig told us a year ago, “They are right to ask for this. Just last week in 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 people 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 Municipality.” Yet in June the Ministerial Law Committee rejected a proposal by MK Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) to provide a 50 percent reduction in arnona for businesses that have incurred losses due to construction of the light rail.
Is Levy planning to try again? “Yes we are,” says Guy Levi, Mickey Levy’s administrative assistant. “Every proposal that comes before the Knesset can be resubmitted for a vote six months after it failed. So we will propose it once again. But I don’t think we can really Asked what will happen next on this issue, Levy replies, “The main problem is that right from the beginning, unlike what’s happening in Europe and in other places around the world, the compensation of businesses was not included in the original planning of this project. This is the main problem. Maybe it should be something more general, not specifically arnona compensation for affected businesses in this situation.
We should be talking about some kind of government legislation that would put some kind of percentage of compensation, right from the beginning, for businesses in future projects. But as far as I understand now, there is no kind of compensation fund or anything like it for businesses affected by this project.”
Says Volfer, “It’s a very complex issue. NTA is very sensitive to the businesses that are near the stations being built. We are committed to help them in any way we can. We have a community person for every station that deals with their wants and needs. But financial compensation is not in our mandate.”
There are protests about other issues as well. The environmental group Adam Teva V’Din has filed detailed objections to NTA’s plans for both the Green and Purple lines. Says Yael Dori, the group’s Technion-educated urban planner, “We submitted two objections. One to the Purple Line and one to the Green Line, especially the central and southern parts of that line. The committee decided to dismiss our objections.”
The group’s primary objections are to the “portals,” or tunnel entrances, planned for the Green Line on northern Ibn Gvirol Street, between Nordau and Yehuda Hamaccabi streets, and on Har Zion Street, near Levinsky Park. According to Dori, these portals will cut the streets into two parts that will not be accessible to each other.
Further damage, the group maintains, will be inflicted on the Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood, while numerous green spaces designated as staging areas for the work – like the northern bank of the Yarkon River, Milano Square, Rabin Square, Levinsky Park, Hahorshot Park, Hakovshim Park, Hatikva Park and Edith Wolfson Park – will be closed to the public for the duration.
Arlozorov Rail Station
Arlozorov Rail Station
Asked if some degree of disruption isn’t inevitable for a project of this magnitude, Dori replies, “Of course. But it has to be in proportion. But if you take an open area – perhaps one of the only open areas in the neighborhood – you have to try to offer a substitute. Otherwise, people in the neighborhood won’t be able to take their children out or even cross the street safely. This is one of the problems. But also, the locations of some of the stations are, in my opinion, wrong.”
What, then, will she and her group do, now that the NTA has dismissed their objections? “Legally, there’s not much we can do. We can’t appeal anything that’s in the planning stage. We could go to court, but for that one needs a legal cause. There was nothing illegal in their decision. So the next step is public protest.”
BUT RESISTANCE seems to be futile, as far as Katz is concerned. Says Sarig, “He’s happy they are protesting, because it shows they are certain the line will be built. You remember that when we started the Red Line, nobody believed it was actually going to happen.
Mr. Katz sees the protests as a vote of confidence for something that isn’t even going to begin for another two years. All the problems that we had with businesses at the start of work on the Red Line was that nobody believed it was really going to happen. After 60 years of talking and planning, people said this would be another thing that wouldn’t happen.”
Sarig adds, “The whole point of working in the middle of Tel Aviv, and everything the Transportation Ministry is telling NTA, is that you can’t harm people – that we have to work around them.”
Rumors are circulating, however, that at least 20 residential and business premises will be removed to make way for the light rail in the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. There is, in fact, a law that enables the government to appropriate private property for community needs – like the building of public transportation facilities.
Asked about the reports, Volfer says, “Look, for us to build the Green Line and the Purple Line, we need to do expropriation work for some structures. There has been a lot of misleading information about this.”
Volfer mentions an interview with a business owner who says his building is slated for expropriation, when in fact it is not. “We have to do some expropriation work, but every shop, every business owner, will get enough advance notice, and everybody will be paid according to the law.
“But it’s like when we started work on the Red Line. A lot of people didn’t believe we were going to start work on the Red Line. So the shop owners said, ‘Okay, we don’t believe it will come.’ And this is the same with the Purple and the Green Line. Once everybody realized we were going to build them, they woke up. But everybody will be paid according to the law. And everybody will get advance notice. So nobody needs to be worried. If an owner is not satisfied with the amount, he can go to court and ask for more money. It’s a very regular thing in such projects, I think in every country, not only in Israel.”
As for claims that Sderot Yerushalayim, Jaffa’s treelined central boulevard, will be denuded and degraded by work on the Red Line, Volfer says, “We need to make some changes in Jaffa, but I think when we finish the project, the benefits will be much more for everybody. There will be many more trees, and the accessibility in Jaffa will be much better. So values will go up for all the properties there.”
Carlebach Rail Station
Carlebach Rail Station
Despite protests, numerous objections, frequent complaints and the kind of grumbling that Israelis have elevated to an art form, the project moves forward, inexorably and on schedule. One is reminded of an old Arabic proverb that states, “The dogs bark, but the caravan passes.”
Virtually everyone involved with the light rail appears to believe that, despite its problems, Israel’s future depends on the project’s success.
Says Volfer, “I think that everybody understands now that it’s possible to build this thing, and that if we didn’t build this, there would be a crisis in Tel Aviv. There is no way in the world the metropolis could live with so many people without some solution of mass transit.
“The Red Line is first. Our goal is to open the Green and the Purple Lines in 2024. And when we open the Red line, we will remove from the road 50,000 cars. And there will be 70 million people using the Red Line when it opens.
“Without this solution, I don’t know how people could live in Tel Aviv in 20 years. I can’t imagine it.”