In-depth reports about the Israeli economy published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world's two most authoritative economic research institutions, reached exactly the same conclusion: road congestion in Israel is the country's number one problem in comparison with other developed countries.
The figures have been familiar to decision-makers in Israel for a long time. Action to redress the problem has begun, but what is being done is too little and too late. Traffic jams do not interest Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon. Ministry of Transport Yisrael Katz is doing something, but is preventing implementation of several of the most effective ways of reducing congestion, because these are liable to harm him politically.
"Israel suffers the worst congestion in the OECD, and the situation will unfortunately only get worse," IMF assistant director Craig Beaumont, declared at a press conference summing up an IMF delegation's visit to Israel. "The population in Israel is increasing, the standing of living is increasing, more and more people are switching to private vehicles, and the infrastructure challenge is mounting."
Three days earlier, a bi-annual OECD report presented figures highlighting the severity of the problem. Transportation density in Israel averages 2,800 vehicles per kilometer of roads, 3.5 times the 800 vehicles per kilometer of roads average density in the OECD and almost double the average density of 1,300 vehicles per kilometer of roads in Spain, which has the second worst road density in the OECD after Israel.
The international comparison arouses a shudder, but the government was aware of the problem even without the OECD comparison. The Ministry of Finance recently revised its estimate of the economic damage caused by road congestion from NIS 25 billion to NIS 35 billion.
The reason is simple: the pace of construction in mass transit infrastructure is far from overtaking the place of increase in the number of private vehicles. Last month, "Globes" reported the findings of a probe by the Knesset Research and Information Center showing that the number of vehicles in Israel increased by 17% in the past five years, while the road area rose by only 6%. A strategic plan by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Transport from 2012 estimated that NIS 200-300 billion in investment would be needed over the coming decade in order to close the gap in mass transit infrastructure between the large cities in Israel and Europe. In contrast to Europe, however, the population is growing rapidly and the standard of living is constantly rising, meaning that Israel must run in order to stay in the same place.
The next example shows just how hopeless the government's effort to augment infrastructure in order to cope with the increase in the number of vehicles is. The largest mass transit project currently under construction in Israel is the Tel Aviv Light Rail red line. This NIS 20 billion project, slated for completion in 2022, is designed to remove 50,000 vehicles from the roads. The problem is that the number of vehicles on the roads rose by 150,000 just in 2017. This means that three light rail lines will be needed to preserve the current density ratio.
What can be done? As Beamont explained, much can be done - if we want to do it. "It will take a long time to close the infrastructure gap created as a result of many years of neglect. As an interim solution, we therefore recommend a policy based on managing demand - for example, shared transportation, car pools, and public transportation lanes. All of these are relatively cheap and have a quick effect. A more significant step will be following the example of London and Stockholm by imposing a congestion fee."
The term "congestion fee" is taboo in Israel because of one man: Yisrael Katz. He is unwilling to accept a congestion tax at the entrance to Tel Aviv, even though all transportation experts believe that this measure is essential and very effective.
Katz's argument is that it is unfair to punish drivers by forcing them to leave their private vehicles without giving them a suitable public transportation alternative. The real reason, however, is political ambition, not fairness. Katz knows that he will pay for a congestion fee at the ballot box, and is unwilling to put his neck on the chopping block, with all due respect to the never-ending traffic jams. Only after efforts at persuasion by the Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Israel, and a long list of experts did Katz allow a trial venture offering monetary prizes to drivers refraining from driving during peak congestion hours. That is at least something.
If a congestion fee cannot be introduced because of Katz's political agenda, however, what about shared transportation and public transportation lanes? These means are also being instituted in slow and incomplete fashion because of political considerations and bureaucratic indifference.
The Ministry of Transport's "City to City" plan was designed to add 330,000 kilometers of public transportation lanes in 20 cities in the Greater Tel Aviv metropolis. The plan has been implemented in only three cities to date, because the local authorities are fearful of the response by drivers of private vehicles to the expropriation of existing lanes for public transportation.
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on March 14, 2018
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