Ride to the Fu­ture

Tel Aviv starts work on a light rail line. Fi­nally.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Naomi Zevel­off

In 1936, Is­raeli poet Nathan Al­ter­man was al­ready be­moan­ing Tel Aviv’s lack of a sub­way. The “un­der­ground dream” of the new city, he wrote in Haaretz, had “evap­o­rated.”

Lament­ing the trans­porta­tion sys­tem in Is­rael’s me­trop­o­lis has prac­ti­cally be­come a na­tional pas­time, as gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion has de­layed such a pro­ject for decades. But now, 79 years af­ter Al­ter­man penned his verse, work­ers have fi­nally bro­ken ground on Tel Aviv’s new un­der­ground train, the first phase in a mul­ti­c­ity mass transit pro­ject.

It’s not quite a sub­way — in most por­tions be­yond Tel Aviv, the train is at street level — but it goes a long way to­ward as­suag­ing Tel Aviv’s nag­ging in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex about whether it can be con­sid­ered a world­class city with­out world-class transit.

“Ev­ery im­por­tant city should have an un­der­ground; even Cairo has one,” said Maoz Azaryahu, a Tel Aviv na­tive and pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Haifa. “It’s a kind of sign of moder­nity, and Tel Aviv prid­ing it­self as a mod­ern city is very back­ward when it comes to public trans­porta­tion.”

In early Au­gust, work be­gan on two of the 10 sta­tions in the ur­ban Tel Aviv por­tion, part of the so-called Red Line. But along with dis­be­lief that the pro­ject had kicked off at last, Tel Avi­vians ex­pressed ap­pre­hen­sion about what the mas­sive con­struc­tion might un­earth. In ad­vance of the drilling, Is­raeli publi­ca­tions ran in­ter­views with ex­ter­mi­na­tors, stok­ing fears that rats will flood the streets in “re­venge” for be­ing jos­tled from their un­der­ground habi­tat. While some city dwellers call the rat the­ory a bald ex­ter­mi­na­tor public re­la­tions stunt, oth­ers are gen­uinely freaked out.

“It sucks,” Noam Do­tam said when asked about the drilling a block away from the in­sur­ance agency where she works, on South Tel Aviv’s Al­lenby Street. On a cig­a­rette break with a friend, the 26-year-old said she was an­tic­i­pat­ing rats, road clo­sures and traf­fic. She said the con­struc­tion would lengthen her com­mute, at least in the short run.

“It will take longer to get home,” she said.

The con­cept of a Tel Aviv area train pre­dates the cre­ation of the State of Is­rael in 1948 and even the found­ing of the city in 1909. Ac­cord­ing to Harakevet, an English- lan­guage news­let­ter about Mid­dle East rail­ways, the idea was floated as early as the late 1800s in the Ot­toman pe­riod. That was when Le­banese engi­neer Ge­orge Fran­jieh pro­posed a tram to cross Jaffa. The line was never built, but the con­cept stuck.

In 1973, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Golda Meir ap­proved of a plan for Tel Aviv mass trans­port. But for years the pro­ject stalled. In the 1990s it was a topic of de­bate in a Tel Aviv may­oral race, with can­di­dates Ron Milo and Avig­dor Ka­ha­lani at odds over whether Tel Aviv de­served a sub­way or a light rail. (Milo won the race, but the cur­rent con­struct is a hy­brid of the two ideas.)

Even­tu­ally, Is­rael looked to pri­vate com­pa­nies to build the rail, award­ing a con­tract in 2006 to a group of five in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies and one Is­raeli one that would ex­e­cute and run the pro­ject for its first 32 years. But their ef­forts flat­lined amid fi­nan­cial prob­lems. In 2010, Is­rael na­tion­al­ized the pro­ject, hand­ing it over to the NTA Metropoli­tan Mass Transit Sys­tem, Ltd., a gov­ern­ment com­pany founded to deal with the Tel Aviv area’s gnarly trans­porta­tion woes.

Part of the rea­son that the Tel Aviv rail has been so long de­layed — to com­pare, Jerusalem’s light rail opened in 2011 — is that it en­tails co­or­di­na­tion be­tween mul­ti­ple mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that make up the city’s

greater metropoli­tan area, called Gush Dan. The Red Line alone en­com­passes five mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties: Bnei Brak, Pe­tah Tik­vah, Ra­mat Gan, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Bat Yam. Cost­ing 16.1 bil­lion shekels (about $4.2 bil­lion), the Red Line is slated for com­ple­tion in 2021. It will carry some 235,000 pas­sen­gers in and out of Tel Aviv each day.

When the en­tire sys­tem is done — no one knows ex­actly when — it will con­sist of eight lines to­tal­ing around 130 miles of track. Ac­cord­ing to an NTA rep­re­sen­ta­tive, it will not run on the Jewish Sab­bath per Is­raeli law.

Mean­while, with­out a mass transit sys­tem, Tel Aviv grew up with cars. Once a small sea­side city, it ex­panded as waves of Jewish im­mi­grants pop­u­lated the city and its en­vi­rons. Like Los An­ge­les, Phoenix and Hous­ton, over the years the city be­came syn­ony­mous with traf­fic jams and park­ing short­ages; it is not un­usual for Tel Avi­vians with wheels to spend an hour each evening af­ter work in search of a street side park­ing spot. The Gush Dan train is meant to al­le­vi­ate con­ges­tion, but in the short term it is likely to make it much, much worse, as ma­jor Tel Aviv streets will be blocked off for years. In the tra­di­tion of ma­jor Amer­i­can traf­fic sna­fus, Haaretz pre­dicted that Tel Aviv will soon en­dure “car­magge­don”.

Whether or not the light rail will prove to be Tel Aviv’s Big Dig — the Bos­ton mega-pro­ject that ran se­verely over bud­get and tore up the city for decades — re­mains to be seen. But Chris Whit­man, a Bos­ton-area na­tive who works at a Tel Aviv work­ers’ rights hot­line, wasn’t dread­ing the con­struc­tion. He said that the city seems to be rerout­ing traf­fic with rel­a­tive grace, for now. “At least they are putting up signs and peo­ple seem to be get­ting it,” he said. “Maybe these are lessons learned from the Big Dig.”

The next step will be the de­mo­li­tion of the Maariv Bridge, a hulk­ing ’70sera over­pass in cen­tral Tel Aviv, to make room for the sec­ond sta­tion.

Across the street from the Maariv Bridge is one of the old­est steak­houses in Is­rael, called Mif­gash HaSteak ( roughly, “Steak Meetup”). The res­tau­rant has be­come the de facto head­quar­ters for a move­ment of shop own­ers who worry that con­struc­tion will de­mol­ish their liveli­hoods. Their motto, printed on fliers with pho­to­graphs of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Moshe Kahlon and Econ­omy Min­is­ter Aryeh Deri, is, “The gov­ern­ment is run­ning over our in­come.”

“We are in­de­pen­dent taxpayers,” it con­tin­ues, “we serve in the army, we built our busi­nesses, we slave away and one day they are go­ing to tram­ple ev­ery­thing we built.”

Sit­ting in the wine room, Shir Sagie, the spokes­woman for the fledg­ling move­ment, was busy typ­ing away on a black lap­top in ad­vance of a neigh­bor­hood meet­ing. Her hus­band is a key cut­ter, and he is an­tic­i­pat­ing ma­jor losses in the com­ing phases of the pro­ject when cus­tomers won’t be able to reach his store. Sagie said that the group is ask­ing for three pro­vi­sions: com­pen­sa­tion for af­fected busi­nesses, such as in wartime; a re­lief from city taxes dur­ing the con­struc­tion pe­riod, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the NTA de­ci­sion-mak­ing process mov­ing for­ward.

“The busi­nesses are go­ing to col­lapse,” she said. “No one wants to eat in a con­struc­tion zone.”

Soon, a bar­rel-chested man in a black shirt walked in. Mickey Vin­ner is the head of the Is­rael garage union. While restau­rants are still able to re­ceive cus­tomers on foot, car garages will be to­tally cut off from their clien­tele. Meital Le­havi, a Tel Aviv deputy mayor, said that the city is aware of the is­sue and is plan­ning al­ter­na­tive routes for cus­tomers to con­nect to their garages. But Vin­ner is skep­ti­cal.

“They say they have a plan, and they don’t have any plan,” he said.

Not all busi­ness own­ers are pan­icked about the train’s ef­fect on their liveli­hood. Eli Co­hen, head of Is­rael’s ex­ter­mi­na­tors as­so­ci­a­tion and part of a fam­ily of leg­endary Is­raeli snake catch­ers, said that he ex­pects “tens of thou­sands” of rats to stream into the city, lead­ing to a pos­si­ble san­i­ta­tion cri­sis in Tel Aviv. The city’s un­der­ground is al­ready filled with rats, he said, and when the drilling be­gins in one area they will flee to another, even­tu­ally com­ing onto streets and side­walks.

He re­jects the ac­cu­sa­tion that ex­ter­mi­na­tors are ped­dling fear in or­der to drum up busi­ness, say­ing the ro­dent threat is not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. On a brief tour near South Tel Aviv’s cen­tral bus sta­tion, he stopped by a crum­bling apart­ment build­ing to point out drop­pings and the car­cass of a rat that had met its end near a pile of used tea bags: “And this is be­fore the train.”


Things From Be­low: Ex­ter­mi­na­tors like Eli Co­hen have warned that con­struc­tion might set loose an in­flux of rats on the city.


Work in Progress: The Tel Aviv light rail con­struc­tion site on Ye­huda Halevi Street, pic­tured in 2012.


Col­lat­eral Dam­age: Mickey Vin­ner, head of the Is­rael garage union, holds a poster advertising a protest against the light rail con­struc­tion.

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