A tram by committee

Tel Aviv light rail is one more proof that government shouldn’t be in the business of urban projects.

Work on the Tel Aviv light rail. (photo credit: COURTESY NTA)
Work on the Tel Aviv light rail.
(photo credit: COURTESY NTA)
“Once again the future has stretched out to us a small finger...
And once again it has slipped by, the scoundrel!
We almost had a subway And now we’ve been let down...
What a shame!” – Natan Alterman, 1936
Last week, the construction work for Tel Aviv’s light rail finally got under way, and it appears the city will finally be receiving a mass transit system fit for a metropolis of its size. While it is certainly a cause for celebration for the city and the entire country, the story of the project’s authorization should serve as a cautionary tale for the officials responsible for managing Israel’s system of government.
Since 1948, the gargantuan bureaucracy known as the Israeli government has made plan after plan to build a subway system in Tel Aviv. Given that it took 67 years for the government to finally authorize the building of the much-needed rail system, it is clear that a reform is needed if we don’t want to continue making the same mistakes.
Fortunately, as I will demonstrate, there is a fairly simple solution that can ensure that this type of long, drawn-out process does not happen again.
Already by 1936, as evidenced by Alterman’s poem, the residents of the city were clamoring for a modern mass transit system. At that time, however, the country was, of course, under British rule and the city authorities lacked the capacity to engage in large-scale infrastructure projects. What has happened in metropolitan Tel Aviv since 1948, however, is inexcusable.
In 1948, the Transportation Ministry received a report from an American company with detailed recommendations on the construction of a subway. Following a dispute between the ministry and the Tel Aviv Municipality, the report was scrapped. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, more reports were commissioned by the state. All were scrapped for one reason or another. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s no less than four different government authorities were charged with planning a mass transit system for Tel Aviv, all of which fell flat.
In the ‘90s the Tel Aviv Municipality tried to commandeer the project. Upon taking office, mayor Roni Milo published a plan for a subway, but it was rejected by the Finance Ministry because it was deemed economically unfeasible.
The Transportation Ministry resurrected the project in the late ‘90s and published its first public tender in 2003. In true Israeli bureaucratic fashion, although the Transportation Ministry was in charge of the project, its plans still needed to be drawn up by the Interior Ministry – which was kind enough to get around to it in 2005.
In 2006, a consortium headed by Africa-Israel won a tender to build the Red Line of the light rail, but in 2010 the government revoked the concession – ostensibly due to finance issues. After the project was nationalized, it took nearly another five years to get where we are today.
Technological constraints can’t be blamed for this foot-dragging.
The New York City Subway was already built in the 1890s, as was the London Underground. Israel is one of only a few countries in the world to have its own space satellites, and has come to be known as the “Start-up Nation” for all the innovative technologies that it has produced. It is plainly obvious, then, that the chief cause of this indefensible delay is Israel’s overgrown bureaucracy.
The oversight of the project was regularly bounced between the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Transportation Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry. It was handed to a private company and taken back. At no time was there a single, cohesive body that was fully responsible for its smooth implementation. A horse by committee, as the old adage goes, is a camel. By that same token, a tram by committee is a never-ending traffic jam.
The best solution to this endless saga is to delegate the power to plan and build infrastructure to democratically- elected regional governments.
As I have written previously, Israel is unique in that it has no mid-tier elected authority responsible governing the state’s metropolitan areas. Instead, the functions that would normally be delegated to lower-tier authorities – e.g.
housing, transportation, environmental control, zoning, etc. – are carried out by various administrations within the national government.
The state’s small size is no excuse for this democratic deficit.
Belguim, a country of 11 million, is divided into 10 provinces, each with its own elected government; Greece, (11 million) is divided into 13 democratic administrative regions; Netherlands (16 million) has 12 democratically-elected provincial governments; the US state of New Jersey (eight million) has 21 counties. Accordingly, Israel should be split into about 10 metropolitan regions, each with its own elected government with the authority to plan and manage the region’s affairs with minimal interference from the state government.
The Tel Aviv light rail is just one more proof that national government shouldn’t be in the business of urban building projects. The lack of coordination between government offices, the arm-wrestling between the Finance Ministry and every other ministry, and the enormous bureaucratic labyrinth that must be navigated in order to secure final approval of each and every phase make the national government completely unfit to be put at the helm of this type of undertaking. In contrast, a democratically-elected regional government, vested with the all the powers that are currently scattered across various government ministries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, could have swiftly seen to it that all the preparation for the light rail project be completed within a single year. Even if this is overly optimistic, there is still no doubt that a metropolitan government, free from interference from the state, could have completed the project much faster than the 67 years it has taken until now. In the future, the only authority that should handle metropolitan infrastructure projects should be the metropolitan government.
The writer is a legal intern at Y. Raveh & Co. and LLM student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he is specializing in Law and City Planning.