Tel Aviv metro becomes a political game

Merav Michaeli  credit: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot Ahronot
Merav Michaeli credit: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot Ahronot

Political wrangling hasn't entirely stopped the project, vital for Israel's economy, but it raises fears for future progress.

The metro project for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, which is budgeted at NIS 150 billion, and could actually cost rather more, is vital to the Israeli economy. It is needed in order to give Israel’s citizens access to opportunities, in a crowded country with some of the worst traffic jams in the Western world. If the project is shelved, the Israeli economy will be paralyzed. Its beating heart, the Gush Dan area around Tel Aviv, will seize up. We are already experiencing a taste of this; imagine what it will be like with another two million residents in the metropolitan area in 2040.

The project, which is the fruit of combined work by the professionals in the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Transport, and the Planning Administration, has not, however, come to a halt. It rests on two legs: the planning leg, and the statutory leg. As far as planning is concerned, the project is proceeding on the basis of four plans covering three lines. Two of the plans have been approved by the government and are available for use by those responsible for carrying them out. The planning also includes National Outline Plan 70 for the environment of the metro stations, and a plan for transport hubs providing connectivity between different means of transport.

The second leg is the statutory leg. As is usual in these cases elsewhere in the world, in Israel too a special law is being promoted to deal with the financing of the ambitious project, regulatory and executive bodies, and removal of obstacles. The legislation was included in the Economic Arrangements Bill accompanying the state budget, but the chairperson of the Knesset and the Knesset’s legal adviser demanded that part of the legislation should be split from the Economic Arrangements Bill and undergo the normal legislative process.

The part that was passed in the framework of the Economic Arrangements Bill includes the financing mechanism for the project, the formation of the Metro Authority, and other important elements. The part due to be legislated separately is ready for second and third readings, and covers aspects such as coordination of infrastructure and regulation, and construction of housing above the stations.

Why then is the law so important now? Mainly because of the part dealing with coordination of infrastructure. The law obliges all the infrastructure corporations in the country - such as the Israel Electric Corporation, which according to government sources is a serial delayer of transport projects - to come into line with the needs of the project and allow it to proceed quickly.

It also gives the project priority over the caprices of local authorities. When construction of the Red Line of the Tel Aviv Light Rail began, the local authorities in Bat Yam, Ramat Gan, and Bnei Brak piled up significant obstacles to its progress, despite agreements that has been signed with them.

The law will substantially reduce the ability of local authorities to stop the work. It will also provide a regulatory framework for hours of work and aspects such as noise, environmental protection, and protection of antiquities.

The initial execution stage, which includes moving infrastructures and trial borings, is, however, planned to start only in the second half of next year. Therefore, if the law is delayed and passes as it is after the formation of the next Knesset, there will be no acute harm to the project.

Uncertain future

The director general of the Ministry of Transport said at a press conference held by the ministry last week that, while the law was important, the project continued to proceed. Indeed, just the other day, the ministry announced "another step towards the metro" with the formation of a search committee to choose the head of the Metro Authority, the roof body that will supervise the project, and the publication of a tender for the management and design of the metro lines worth billions of shekels. In the last state budget, the projected received a budget of NIS 6 billion to allow these stages to proceed.

It was therefore such a surprise when Minister of Transport Merav Michaeli tweeted yesterday: "If the Metro Law does not pass because some of my colleagues in the coalition cave in to the opposition on the back of the public, they will have to give an account of why the national project that will extricate us from the jam has been stopped because of petty politics."

Well, the project has not been stopped. Nevertheless, the fears for its progress are real. The fear is that the law will be diluted or neutralized in the next Knesset. A committee that discusses it will not be in a hurry to pass it without changes after a previous committee has presented it.

The time taken for legislating could also delay the project: the law was dealt with at record speed in the current Knesset, within one sitting of the Committee on Special National Infrastructure Projects, headed by MK Yulia Malinovsky, without dramatic changes to the draft presented by the government ministries.

The influence of various lobbyists, such as the objectors to the project from Ra’anana, through whose neighborhood a metro line is due to pass, is also liable to strengthen in the coming legislative procedures. Another fear is that the law will not be promoted at all, because it is identified with the current government, which may be replaced.

The fears are partly justified and partly exaggerated. Mainly, the metro, which started out during the governments headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, is serving as a political tool in a way that seems to be coordinated between the heads of the coalition parties (and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid with a certain delay). They have accused the opposition of obstructing the project. Turning the metro law into a campaign banner could even thwart efforts to reach agreement on it. MK Malinovsky, of the Yisrael Beitenu party, accused the Likud party of surrendering to "a Likud activist from Ra’anana who is determinedly opposed to the metro, and he is the one responsible for the madness we are in. He puts pressure on Likud members, and they immediately stand to attention."

Earlier, MK Shlomo Karhi of Likud tweeted: "I’m in favor of passing the metro law only if my amendment concerning the station at Bet Levinstein (in Ra’anana, A. Z) is accepted," seemingly confirming Malinovsky’s claim.

On the other hand, Knesset members of the Yesh Atid party, Malinovsky’s coalition partners, have also expressed support for the objectors from Ra’anana.

It should be pointed out that the law was approved by the Knesset committee four and a half months ago, and since then has been waiting for the coalition to bring it to the Knesset plenum. The coalition did not, however, give the law priority, and now it is pointing an accusing finger at the opposition.

Hypocrisy reigns in the other camp as well. With no professional justification for opposing the law, and after tens of hours of discussion involving opposition Knesset members as well, the opposition is halting the law in order to deny achievements to the coalition. The metro was willingly promoted when it had no political patrons. Since the coalition has become its sponsor (and did not manage to pass it in the winter session), it is considered "an achievement".

MK Yoav Kisch of Likud demonstrated "statesmanship" when from the Knesset podium he proposed bringing the election forward to October 25 in return for the metro law. "I’m prepared to lose the votes of what’s his name from Ra’anana for the sake of the election date. We want an achievement, and if you want the metro law I’m prepared to persuade people," Kisch said, making one wonder whether the objections are no more than extortion over the date of the election.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on June 29, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Merav Michaeli  credit: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot Ahronot
Merav Michaeli credit: Alex Kolomoisky, Yediot Ahronot
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