The Red Line of the Tel Aviv area light rail was opened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today in a ceremony in Petah Tikva (the northern end of the line). The ceremony was accompanied by protests against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, and against the fact that the line will not operate on Saturdays.
In the 21 years since the first plan was approved for the line, the project has become stuck, been delayed, become more expensive, and got into difficulties to no small extent. The advantage of these upsets is that, from some of them at least, lessons have been learned for the next lines, and for the planned Metro as well. So what changes have been made following the experience with the work on the Red Line, and what will continue to delay and snarl us in the forthcoming projects?
Examination of the planning of the Green Line and the Purple Line shows that not all the lessons have been learned. The underground section of the Red Line, for example, increased the budget required to the level of that for a metro system. This investment does not pay off, because in the end the result obtained is the service level of a light rail, that is, fewer passengers and lower frequency than in a metro. Despite this, both the Green Line and the Purple Line will run underground in Tel Aviv in order not to interfere with cars, as with the Red Line.
All the same, with those lines too the planning in Tel Aviv is better than in the other cities through which the lines will run, and that is another lesson that has not been learned. In Tel Aviv, surrounding the Red Line, there has been intensive development of infrastructure for pedestrians, bicycles, and connections with other forms of public transport. That has not been done in other local authorities, and the gaps are glaring.
In the case of the Metro, it seems that these lessons have been learned, and an entire plan is being promoted that takes account of the connection between construction, the urban space, and transport.
Extortion causes delay
A State Comptroller’s Report published last year explains that the Red Line suffered from extortion on the part of local authority heads, who held up the project when NTA - Metropolitan Mass Transit, the company responsible for it, did not meet their demands.
Furthermore, there is a lack of coordination between the various bodies responsible for infrastructure in the country. There are underground infrastructures of the local authorities, of government companies such as national water company Mekorot, Energy Infrastructures, and Israel Electric Corporation, and of the telecommunications companies. They are not committed to adapting themselves to the work schedule of the project, which caused many delays. The problem is repeating itself with the Green Line and Purple Line.
The National Infrastructures Law passed as part of the latest Economic Arrangements Law gives priority to major infrastructure projects, among them of course the light rail project, over any other need of the various companies. The power of veto players such as local authorities ahs also been weakened. At the same time, the law also weakened environmental regulation mechanisms. AS a result of lessons learned from the Red Line, government ministries are promoting the Metro Law, which will give even higher priority to the huge planned project, but that law has yet to be passed.
Four years ago, when the work was at its height, NTA was rocked by the resignation of its then CEO Yehuda Bar-On and five VPs when they found that they could no longer work with the board of directors. It must be regretfully acknowledged that politics is part of working in state-owned companies in Israel, even when it comes to advancing the most important national initiatives.
In the Metro project, a special administration was set up meant to act as a buffer between the politicians and those responsible for carrying the project out, but it is doubtful whether it will be politics-free. Only recently we have seen Minister of Transport Miri Regev, who is entrusted with the success of transport projects, waging war against the Metro in order to obtain other budgetary demands. She also changed the composition of the search committee for the appointment of a manager of the Metro Authority. So it looks as though politics will remain part of such projects in the future as well.
The tenders method
Each element of the Red Line project was the subject of a separate tender, and different contractors were selected. This required management capable of meeting the demands of integration. NTA did not succeed in this.
As a result, for the Green Line and the Purple Line, franchisees were selected for the second stage of the project covering laying of the tracks, installing the systems, and ordering rolling stock, and they are responsible for the project in its entirety. The procurement policy for the Metro has not yet been set, but it may well be even more conservative as far as integration risk is concerned.
In 2008, a consortium won a tender to construct the Red Line, but it failed to obtain the full financing required. In a hasty decision, the government decided to nationalize the project, and to wipe out years of work. Today too, the economic situation is shaky, and the franchisee that won the Green Line tender has still not obtained financial closing, which was supposed to have happened two months ago. This will be a test of the state’s ability to step in and give backing so as not to lose time on this project as well.
One the reasons that NTA gives for the delays is insufficient time for checks and quality control for the Red Line. A new signaling system was chosen for the line that was largely untried. The Elizabeth Line of the London Underground was held up for almost three years because of the checks that had to be carried out.
There are therefore two lessons to be learned. One is to do with adopting new technologies with which there is insufficient experience. Despite the natural tendency to prefer the new, government ministries take the view that it is better to adopt proven technologies. Secondly, when schedules and milestones are being set, more time should be allowed for checks. This was not the case with the Green Line and Purple Line, the openings of which have been put back from 2025 to 2028 and 2027 respectively.
NTA was criticized for its lack of transparency over the timetable for the Red Line project. That lesson has apparently not been learned, for no official announcement has ever been made about the postponement of the Green Line and Purple Line. We learned about that from notifications by the franchisee to the stock exchange.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 17, 2023.
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