Will we still get caught in traffic jams in five years?

Traffic jams

Four major transportation projects are scheduled for completion in 2025, but they are not enough.

The current congested state of Israel's roads is bad. It is not just bad; an OECD report published this year calls Israel the most traffic congested country in the OECD. The worst, however, is yet to come. "If business as usual continues, travel time in congested areas will rise by 50%," warns Prof. Shlomo Bekhor, a member of the civil engineering faculty at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology and chairperson of the Israeli Society for Transportation Research. When Bekhor says business as usual, he means a situation in which significant new transportation projects are not developed in congested areas, which is unfortunately fairly close to reality.

Israel is currently moving ahead with four major projects: light rail systems in the greater Tel Aviv region and Jerusalem; the fourth railway track next to the Ayalon Highway; and the system of fast toll lanes. All of these are designed to greatly improve the level of public transport in Israel and relieve congestion, but they will be completed only in 2025 in the most optimistic scenario, which  does not take into account delays in execution - something that has become routine in Israeli infrastructure projects. What will happen until then? We will go on waiting longer and longer in traffic jams each year.

A 2018 study by the Bank of Israel found that, in the period 2005-2016, travel time to work rose 30% outside the community of residence and 14% to a workplace within the community of residence.

As time passes, traffic jams cost us more and more money. The Ministry of Finance budget department this year estimated the annual damage caused by congestion at NIS 35 billion. The damage is projected to reach NIS 70 billion by 2040, and there is nothing final about that number.

A few weeks ago, the Central Bureau of Statistics published figures supporting the prophecies by academics, signalling to the government that it needs to think outside the box, and that at the same time as it promotes major infrastructure projects that have a natural tendency to be delayed, it has to and to promote smart projects as well, and to implement technological solutions in transportation.

The equation is simple: infrastructure investment is inadequate, and the rate of roadbuilding cannot keep up with the increase in the distance traveled by vehicles in a given period. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, vehicle kilometers traveled has risen 63% since 2000, and the number of vehicles by 84% since that year, while the aggregate area of roads has risen 45% and the length by only 19%.

The actual picture is worse than that described by the Central Bureau of Statistics, because most of the roads being built, such as Highway 77 and Highway 6, are in northern and southern Israel, not in high-density areas. In other words, in congested areas in central Israel, the gap between the rate of increase in vehicle kilometers traveled and in increase in road area is even worse.

"The government needs to continue investing in infrastructure. It is necessary to invest in accessibility for everyone, including people living in Beersheva and those in Eilat," Bekhor says. "The problem is that vehicle kilometers traveled is growing much faster than any infrastructure project. I'm not singling out the minister of transport; I think that he's trying to do things, but they are simply failing to close the gap, despite all the investment."

Bekhor believes that the problem of traffic jams can be solved fairly simply, without massive infrastructure investment. His idea is to increase the average number of passengers per vehicle, which currently stands at only 1.15 at peak hours. He says that if we can raise this figure to 1.5, traffic jams will vanish from our lives. How can this be done? He says though massive encouragement of shared travel and streamlining of existing public transport routes achieved by utilizing technologies to be developed by the private sector in cooperation with the state, which will provide monetary incentives to entrepreneurs and to people who travel in carpools or by public transport.

"Israelis are in no hurry to travel together for two main reasons: it is difficult find a shared arrangement, and they lack any incentive to do so," Bekhor adds. "Use of public transport has to be encouraged by providing incentives and using smart technology, particularly in very congested areas such as Tel Aviv. Shared transport should also be encouraged; companies that have developed ride-sharing apps, which are currently working at break-even, should be encouraged. The government should adopt this as a national mission - to ease regulation and grant tax breaks. In contrast to the 1980s, some people, especially young people, can now be motivated towards shared travel by technological means."

Some see traffic jams, other see interchanges

Had decision-makers believed that without a short-term solution the country was liable to sink into a real transportation crisis like the housing crisis, we might not have won the dubious honor of being named the most traffic congested country in the OECD, but this is not the case. The much publicized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "Where the media sees traffic jams, I see interchanges and bridges," is perhaps a good illustration of this.

Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz can be credited with reforms such as Open Skies and the ports reform (for the time being only in Haifa). Despite his efforts, however, Israel trails far behind other developed countries in transport infrastructure. Israel is one of the few OECD countries that has no metro, which is so essential in the current situation. In the most optimistic scenario, it will be 10 years before Israelis can travel by metro.

This infrastructure gap between Israel and the West amounts to NIS 250-600 billion, depending on whom you ask. Not only is the gap enormous, but the projects taking place are being delayed. Projects such as the Red Line of the greater Tel Aviv region light rail, the high-speed route to Jerusalem, and the fourth railway track along the Ayalon Highway have been going on for two decades. The main reason for the prolonging of infrastructure projects is the large number of "veto players" - those who can halt progress in a project for years, such as the local authorities, politicians, government ministries, and infrastructure companies. This question of removing layers of regulation in infrastructure projects is being assessed by the state, but a suitable solution has yet to be found.

If we look at what is being done today in transportation to combat traffic jams without roadbuilding, we will discover two projects: The "Going Green" trial, and encouragement of shared travel. Both of these were approved and budgeted by the government, but are advancing very slowly. The Going Green project, for example, is still classified as a trial and may start operating only in another 6-8 years. In Going Green, monetary incentives will be given to drivers refraining from travel during peak hours, and fines will be levied on those who do travel at such times.

"The transport situation will become a crisis"

"If the current trend persists, the transport situation will worsen and become a real crisis in the coming years, especially in the central region," a study conducted by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg in cooperation with Nitzan Yotzer and Shuki Cohen states. The study was recently presented at the annual conference of the Israel Institute of Technology. The upside is that, according to Trajtenberg, a solution exists that can be implemented almost immediately at low cost, and which will make Israel a pioneer in the solution of traffic jams.

His revolutionary plan, based on a dramatic change in the method of taxing vehicles, was recently presented to the Ministry of Finance budget committee. "There is no doubt that this is the way we have to go. I recently took part in several conferences around the world, and this is the direction in which things are headed. We might even get there ahead of the rest of the world," Trajtenberg says.

Under Trajtenberg's plan, all of the transport-related taxes currently paid to the state will be eliminated: excise tax on gasoline, purchase tax, customs duties, etc. A new form of taxation will be applied in which tax is collected per kilometer traveled. The amount of the tax will depend upon a number of variables: hour, location, and number of passengers in the vehicle. A driver in a car with several passengers will pay lower tax per kilometer traveled than a driver traveling alone in the vehicle. A driver entering a specific area at peak times will pay more than a someone driving at off-peak hours.

As Trajtenberg sees it, the plan will greatly relieve congestion even in the short term, because private vehicle use will decline. What will happen to state revenues? This will depend on the strength of the behavioral response, but the plan is devised such that the average amount of tax paid per kilometer will be the same as the average tax per kilometer paid now - NIS 0.64. At present, state revenues from taxes on vehicles amount to NIS 28 billion a year. Under the plan, smart chips will be installed in every vehicle for monitoring the travel route and the number of passengers in the vehicle. The vehicle owner will be billed accordingly.

Trajtenberg takes it as axiomatic that the rate of roadbuilding will never catch up to the increase in vehicle kilometers traveled; in any case, there is not enough space available for building roads. The transport investments now being promoted can only prevent the situation from worsening in the long term. It is possible that things may improve then, but not in the short term. "This is a major reform requiring not only more work, but also persuasion and a change in perception. But I have no doubt that it will happen, because there is no other solution," Trajtenberg says.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 3, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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