Tel Aviv light rail faces delays as NTA CEO quits

Yehuda Bar-On Photo: Shlomi Yosef

Yehuda Bar-On has unexpectedly stepped down after a dispute with the chairman and board, throwing into question whether the Red Line will be completed by October 2021.

The timetable for construction of the Tel Aviv light rail has been thrown into question after NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit Ltd. CEO Yehuda Bar-On unexpectedly quit. NTA is the government company in charge of the design and construction of the Tel Aviv light rail. Bar-On has stepped down due to tensions with NTA's board of directors and its chairman Ram Belinkov, who assumed the position six months ago.

Bar-On, 60, became NTA CEO five years ago at about the time when construction on the Tel Aviv light rail began. He has overseen work in digging tunnels and building stations for the Red Line, due to become operational in October 2021, as well as issuing tenders for the Green and Purple Lines. The news of Bar-On's departure comes as work begins on the Red Line in Jaffa's Jerusalem Boulevard, which is closing to traffic. Another major project yet to begin at all is the planned Tel Aviv Metro system.

Bar-On is due to leave in three months. He has been effective in building confidence with the Ministry of Finance's Budgetary Division and Accountant General's office, which has allowed NTA to implement the project within the timetable and budget set. This followed the years of NTA mismanagement, which preceded him, which were highlighted by the State Comptroller and resulted in years of delays and ballooning of the project's costs. The Ministry of Finance had seriously considered taking the project away from NTA.

Bar-On resolutely confronted mayors and their municipalities and residents who tried to put obstacles in his path to ensure that the project moved forward according to its timetable even if residents were inconvenienced. Such was the case in Kfar Shalem and Jaffa's Jerusalem Boulevard where he has refused to be flexible. His management style led to resignations among senior executives in NTA including the CFO but construction of the Red Line has moved forward on schedule.

In his resignation letter Bar-On describes the troubled work relations that he has with the board of directors and how his position has become uncertain after the joint steering committee of the Ministries of Transport and Finance took decisions on strategies and budgets. Bar-On's authority was based on a legal opinion but that was not acceptable to Belnikov.

Bar-On said, "Following his decision to put in his hands authorities in contradiction to government decisions and the legal opinion, cooperation and the balance of power between the tenders committee, board and government bodies are all in a whirl."

He added, "Disputes and disagreements are an acceptable part of work procedures. But from the moment they are conducted through the media with defamation, and presenting falsities, then this justifiably causes the name of the company to be harmed and the public's confidence in it."

But sources close to the board of directors paint a different picture. They say that Bar-On took decisions in coordination with the steering committee, which left the board with no powers. Three directors including Dalit Braun and Ran Rashal even threatened to resign if the company's corporate norms were not changed."

The big question now is whether the Red line will be ready on time in October 2021 in light of Bar-On leaving office in three months' time. Many in the infrastructures sector believe that there will inevitably be delays to the timetable following Bar-On's departure. A senior figure at one of the companies working with NTA told "Globes,"Bar-On knew how to demand that contractors and suppliers met deadlines and he understood what was more important and less important."

Even if there are no delays with the Red Line there is also the question of whether the Purple and Green Lines, due to be completed by 2026, but only just starting out, will be completed on time. The completion date was only just put back to 2026 and is expected to be postponed again.

Another task facing NTA is to raise capital from government ministries for the Tel Aviv Metro (subway) system, which is in advanced stages of planning of the lines. NIS 150 billion is needed - a sum of a size not seen before for any Israeli infrastructure project. Bar-On was one of the dominant figures pushing the project forward and his successor will be asked to meet an ambitious completion date of 2030.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 27, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Yehuda Bar-On Photo: Shlomi Yosef
Yehuda Bar-On Photo: Shlomi Yosef
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