Pay to drive?

Let's improve Israel's transportation systems before slapping congestion charges on vehicles entering TA.

traffic top (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
traffic top
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
If the Transportation Ministry and the Tel Aviv Municipality have their way, by next summer out-of-town motorists will be paying a "congestion charge" for the privilege of driving in metropolitan Tel Aviv. Proponents of the scheme want fees to apply in the area south of Rokach Boulevard and north of Derech Kibbutz Galuyot. A more radical plan would charge for driving anywhere into the area bounded by Highway 5 in the north and the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway in the south. Daily costs could reach up to NIS 50 per vehicle. The good news is that the proposal is probably at least several years from implementation. Nevertheless, a congestion charge plan was recently introduced in the Knesset Interior Committee, and proponents promise to submit it to a plenum vote when the Knesset reconvenes in three months. THE IDEA of limiting traffic in central Tel Aviv is a good one. Israel needs to be more aggressive in reducing harmful carbon emissions. Moreover, fewer cars would mean fewer bottlenecks, accidents and aggravation. But unlike New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg's push for a Manhattan congestion charge has been stymied by the state legislature, or London, which has had a congestion charge in place for five years, Tel Aviv does not have an underground or subway system. Without a practical rapid transit alternative, congestion charges would merely shake down drivers entering Tel Aviv - and possibly Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and Petah Tikva too. Premature implementation of a pay-to-drive scheme would create hardship and undermine the local economy. Workers who put in a six-day work week would need to shell out as much as NIS 1,200 a month. There would be different toll rates at different hours, for different vehicles, according to emissions produced. Strangely, no provision has been included for rewarding car-pooling. Tel Aviv is still awaiting its light-rail system. It's been touted for decades, but the prospect of comfortable, sleek and non-polluting electric trams, so common abroad, remains an urban planning vision. After much argument about whether the (non-existent) line should be extended so that it begins in Rishon and terminates in Herzliya, the quarrel now centers around Tel Aviv's busy Rehov Ibn Gvirol. The city wants the train to run underground, but the Transportation Ministry doesn't want to pay for tunnels. Meanwhile, many citizens continue to resort to cars (for which Israelis pay exorbitant customs duties and taxes) to avoid overcrowded, slow-moving and sometimes unreliable buses in their localities. The bus service between localities - for instance, from Ra'anana to central Tel Aviv - leaves much to be desired. And in the southern Sharon area many Tel Aviv-bound lines don't run late into the night, are infrequent or offer no express service. As for the much-heralded railroad line to Tel Aviv, trains run from the distant edge of eastern Kfar Saba and from an outlying corner of Herzliya, and getting to these stations is almost as much of a hassle as driving your car all the way to Tel Aviv. To add insult to injury, the same MKs who are set to legislate congestion charges recently voted against free park-and-drive at these inaccessible train terminals, ostensibly to encourage bus-riding - even though the service has not been improved. Speaking of buses, why not make a greater investment in hybrid electric buses and advanced emission-control technologies? New York City now has a fleet of 700 "green" vehicles. Many of New York's other buses have been fitted with the latest devices that reduce air pollution. THE COUNTRY also needs to move full speed ahead with a fast train link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Finance Ministry have, for budgetary reasons, been stymying the Transportation Ministry's efforts to bring this project to fruition. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the good news is that tracks for the light rail are being laid this week on Jaffa Road. The bad news is that the entire project should have gone operational two years ago. So rather than putting the cart before the horse, let's first improve Israel's intra- and inter-city public transportation systems - and and only then think about whether it makes good public policy sense to slap congestion charges on vehicles entering metro Tel Aviv. For now - it doesn't.