A billion shekels. That is the investment required for Israel to close the gap with other Western countries in terms of public transport. This decades-large gap is acutely felt by all bus and train commuters, and even the Ministry of Transport is aware of it - in fact, it was a Ministry of Transport working paper that listed the billion shekel price tag. How do we bridge this gap? (New York) Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company (MTACC) President Dr. Michael Horodniceanu says the answer is obvious: Israel must take the responsibility for public transport development from the Ministry of Transport, and transfer it to municipal transport authorities. “Good public transport cannot take place without local transport authorities, and without dedicated tax collection towards public transport,” Horodniceanu told “Globes” in an exclusive interview, confirming what the Transport Ministry already knows: the concentration of authority within the ministry makes it difficult to execute projects.
Horodniceanu, an Israeli expat who holds a B. Sc. in Civil Engineering from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, was appointed president of MTACC in 2008. Since that time, he has been responsible for the planning of $18 billion worth of projects, under the largest transport construction plan in the US, including mega-projects, such as planning the East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway, and building the Fulton Center. Last week he was the guest of honor at the Israel Roads Planning Conference.
“How many roads can we build already?”
How did such a vast gap between Israel and other developed countries come about?
“While Europe built public transport infrastructures before building roads, in Israel, the process was reversed. Israel was a new country with limited financial abilities. Everything was very simple. There was no money to develop underground public transport, which was an expensive thing, so they began with buses, which in fact met the needs. Over the years, Israel decided to invest in roads, because it was much cheaper than building underground transport.”
Israel’s per-capita investment in roads is, in fact, one of the highest in the world - more than Berlin, Sydney, Rome, Toronto, and other major cities.
“But how many roads can you build already? Israel should have developed a public transport network in parallel. While use of public transport around the world only went up and up, in Israel, it fell further and further.”
The Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance predict that if vast sums are not invested in public transport in the coming years, each commuter should expect to waste an additional 60 minutes a day on the road.
“That is a best-case scenario. Today, anyone who lives outside of Tel Aviv and works in Tel Aviv needs a personal vehicle. An impossible situation has been created. In the US, if someone needs a car, he simply hires one. In Israel, it is impossible. It must be possible for people to reach the city on public transport, which operates on dedicated public transport channels.”
And when Horodniceanu speaks of dedicated channels, he means channels that are exclusively for public transport. “In Israel, they are only dedicated to public transport during certain hours, not on Friday, or on holidays, or if ‘Grandma doesn’t feel good.’ Oftentimes buses have to sit in traffic with the rest of the cars. This is true for the Jerusalem Light Rail as well. These ‘leniencies’ create a situation in which the importance of public transport is crushed, and is not a top priority.”
How do we solve this problem
“We must find an arrangement in which those who still want a car will park it outside the city and will use public transport to get into the city.”
This option exists at the entrance to Tel Aviv
“Yes, but again, not exactly. At the entrance to Tel Aviv, you can get on transportation that takes you on a fixed route; there are no other options. What happens if you are not on this particular route? And, anyway, as I understand it, the ‘Park & Ride’ parking lot was filled long ago, so even if you are someone who is on the route, often you won’t find parking in the lot.”
And what about the fast lanes? People who want to can pay more to go faster.
“That’s not the way to solve the problem. You could, by the same token, say that whoever has money can take a helicopter to work.”
One problem is that there is a lot of talk, and a lot of planning, but nothing happens. For example, NTA, which is responsible for the Tel Aviv Light Rail. For each traffic sign that it wants to move, or ditch that it wants to dig, it has to get approval for from the local authorities of the Ministry of Transport.
“This is, in fact, a problem. In order for there to be good public transport, metropolitan transport authorities must be established. It is impossible otherwise. Each such authority will include a few cities, and it will have an interest to promote public transport in its area. This exists in every other place in the world; I don’t understand why it’s not this way in Israel. Everything is concentrated in the hands of the Transport Ministry, and an absurd situation has been created where one needs to turn to it for every ‘peep.’”
It’s easy to say that you need good public transport, but how will the investment be financed?
“First of all, a separation between intra-city and inter-city transport must be made. The government must finance inter-city infrastructures under the state budget, and intra-city transport must be financed by the municipalities.
“Today, a large portion of government revenue comes from private vehicle taxes, but the money does not necessarily go to public transport. This can be solved through taxes that are dedicated to public transport.
“In the US, there is something called a “lockbox,” into which taxes that are earmarked for public transport are deposited, and they cannot be used for other purposes.”
How is the tax collected?
“Each municipal authority must set a fixed percentage that it charges on public transport. Just like property tax is different in every city, public transport should be as well. Today, Eilat and Kiryat Shmona residents are effectively paying tax for public transport in Tel Aviv. Again, the municipalities must invest the money they collect in developing public transport in their areas.”
Horodniceanu also recommends another public-transport dedicated tax collection method, which currently exists in the US: taxing employers.
Because they are the ones who ultimately benefit the most from having a greater selection of potential employees.
“Public transport is a basic product,” says Horodniceanu, “and, therefore, the country must advance it. It also has social value - if it is efficient, parents will be able to get home before their children go to sleep.”
Tel Aviv Light Rail: NTA has found a way to move things forward
Recently, the Knesset approved the Railway Ordinance Amendment Bill, which allows for barriers impeding the establishment of the Tel Aviv Light Rail to be lifted. Among other things, the amendment makes it possible for NTA to carry out work alongside the light rail lines, such as strengthening and monitoring structures along the tracks, without requesting a permit to do so.
Until the amendment was passed, the company was forced, say in a case where it was necessary to strengthen a home, to knock on the resident’s door, and ask his or her permission, and to ask for the approval of the municipal authority in whose jurisdiction it was operating as well. Just think that the Red Line, the first line scheduled to be built, is 24 kilometers long, starting in Bat Yam, and ending in Petah Tikva. In other words, NTA would have to requests permits from five different municipalities. The amendment is intended to reduce at least some of the bureaucratic procedures involving the municipalities.
NTA CEO Yehuda Bar On said, “This law is a very important step that will allow us to advance much more quickly towards the national project with which we are dealing - establishing a light rail and a mass transit system in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The new amendment is another tool in the toolbox that NTA is receiving in order to advance the project - a tool that the company’s new management promoted and pushed for since taking its position.”
There are plenty of recommendations, but still no authority
The idea to set up municipal transport authorities in Israel is not a new one. In fact, already in 2007 the Sadan Committee to examine public transport reform stated that a national authority and municipal authorities must be established, first in Tel Aviv, and then in Haifa and Jerusalem. Four years later, Shaldor Strategy Consulting recommended the same thing in a report it prepared for the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance: to establish a transport authority in metropolitan Tel Aviv, like those that operate in most Western cities. According to the outline proposed in the report, the authority would be established as a multi-city, not-for-profit corporation, would be owned by the 14 partner cities, and would operate under the auspices of the National Public Transport Authority.
The Shaldor report also addressed the matter of financing the municipal authority’s operations, and recommended a “matching” arrangement, between the cities and the State - 85% of the financing would come from the State, and 15% from the cities included in the partnership, in proportion to their respective sizes. Shaldor also recommended that major projects - medium and large - be budgeted outside of the State budget. In addition, a dedicated tax for the municipal authority would be established.
It has been three years since the Shaldor report was submitted, and still there is no municipal public transport authority in Tel Aviv.
The Ministry of Transport told “Globes,” “At present, we are in the final stages of establishing a national authority for public transport, which will serve as regulator and professional supervisor of the metropolitan authorities, which we intend to establish in the Jerusalem area, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheva. Only after we have finished recruiting and fully training the manpower to fill the positions that have been defined for them under the national authority will we be able to begin establishing the metropolitan authorities. Shaldor served as project advisor (one of many advisors for this project) and in this capacity, it helped to record the understandings that had formed.”
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 23, 2014
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