Minister of Transport Miri Regev's comments at the "Globes" Real estate Conference on Monday that she plans halting the Tel Aviv Metro project has stirred up a storm. After saying that the Metro would cost NIS 150 billion on top of the NIS 60 billion that the Tel Aviv light rail is costing and the NIS 600 million for cycle paths in Gush Dan, Regev said that she is against going ahead with the project.
Regev said that she preferred spending NIS 100 billion on building railways from Hadera to Kiryat Shmona in the north and Dimona to Eilat in the south. "It will be for passengers by day and cargo at night. It will take trucks off the highways and lead to the construction of factories in the south and the north. When we check out these plans compared with putting all the budget into the Metro, when we are already investing in the light rail and for bicycles, I think we also need to invest in connecting up the rest of the State of Israel."
Among the wave of reactions to Regev's remarks, former Minister of Transport Bezalel Smotrich said, "The attempt to present this versus investment in outlying regions is cheap populism that reflects a lack of understanding. Firstly, the Metro will also serve residents of outlying regions traveling to the center. In addition, it can be financed by the private sector in contrast to transport projects like the railway to Eilat. Investment in outlying regions is important but there is no connection between that and the Metro."
Regev hit back at Smotrich. "It would be worthwhile for the former Minister of Transport to know the figures. The cost of the project is NIS 150 billion with NIS 80 billion coming from the state budget."
The budget figures that Regev tweeted in her response to Smotrich are correct. The cost of building three Metro lines extending over 146 kilometers and 109 stations is NIS 150 billion - 60% for the civil engineering and infrastructure work and 40% for the rolling stock.
Regev is also right about the financing model with the private sector and the State sharing the costs almost evenly.
But where Regev is wrong is that the Metro is an investment. When completed the Metro will contribute an estimated NIS 26-34 billion annually to Israel's economy - in other words the investment would be returned with five years.
Regev's claim that transport infrastructures bring economic development and growth is not groundless. Road 6, the Cross-Israel Highway, is a successful example. However, the NIS 100 billion that Regev proposes investing in railways to Kiryat Shmona and Eilat would yield zero returns, certainly in the first years. This is an insane investment in relation to the size of the populations that would benefit from it. It has been previously claimed that for the money the Eilat railway would cost it would be possible to buy every resident of the Red Sea resort a luxury car.
Regev prefers that Tel Aviv would remain one of the only major metropolitan areas in the world without an underground railway while Eilat would become the world's smallest city with a 250 kilometers per hour fast rail link.
Regev did not invent the idea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Katz when he was Transport Minister spoke for years about an Eilat railway financed by the Chinese. But once the Chinese made it clear that they would charge a high interest for building the railway, talking about the plan became empty rhetoric.
The normalization agreement with the UAE gives a new significance to the Eilat railway option, but Katz's plan to extend the Haifa- Beit Shean railway line eastwards into Jordan is a much cheaper plan.
Ultimately what is more important - the 3.5 million residents of Gush Dan or the 80,000 residents of Eilat and the Arava.
Regev claims that the three light rail lines are enough even though she admits that central Israel is becoming more and more congested. The question still remains as to whether the Metro is the right solution. As it happens Smotrich told "Globes" in May before ending his term as Minister of Transport that were he staying on he would re-examine the viability of the project. He said, "We have to be sure that we are rushing to imitate what the Europeans did 100 years ago. Today there are other solutions."
But the Metro is much more than a means of transport. Its decisive advantage is its ability to convey vast numbers of people, many more than the light railway, underground with minimum disruption from the traffic above. The State can use the Metro to leverage unprecedented large-scale construction near the stations. This means the center of the country will become more crowded with high-rise buildings and won't spread to the outlying regions.
The Ministry of Finance claims that the Metro is worth half a trillion shekels to the State through preventing jams, shortening journey times, environmental advantages, and increasing economic activity. The issue of the Metro is something that can affect the entire complexion of Israel for many years to come.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 27, 2020
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