Monday, July 27, 2009

Subway in Tel-Aviv?! I thought I'd never see the day

I still can't believe they are actually doing this. It's always been out of reach of Israeli government budget - so they let the metro traffic hell expand, and expand, and improving highways and snail-train never did seem to do the trick.

Winter traffic congestion in Tel Aviv
Before reading about the upcoming subway, consider that other options are still on the table - in particular - punishing motorists who need to enter the countries major metropolitan:
Tel Aviv to introduce congestion charge by 2009 (I don't know if this was actually implemented, this was the plan in 2008)

Is this really happening?
Train of thought
The 23rd-floor office of Yochanan Or, CEO of Metro Transit Solutions (MTS), the company in charge of building and operating Tel Aviv's first subway system - an NIS 10 billion project, the first of its kind in Israel - overlooks half of Tel Aviv. On Or's office walls are two charts. One is a map of the city, crisscrossed by colorful lines in all directions. The other looks like a cross between a building diagram and an ant farm. The map depicts the projected routes. The diagram is an incredibly elaborate timetable that shows what has to be done before the work is complete.

If everything goes according to plan, when Or looks down on the city five years from now, he will see fewer cars, buses and taxis driving through the streets. On clear days, when he stretches his neck to look to the north and to the south, he will see trains emerging from underground. Today, however, it takes more than a good imagination to envision this future. One needs to put on rose-tinted glasses to look past the challenges facing the project.

The idea of running a subway beneath the busy streets of Tel Aviv is not a new one. Plans for such a project have been placed on the desks of every prime minister, transportation minister and Tel Aviv mayor since the founding of the state. Natan Alterman wrote a poem about the missed opportunity for a subway as far back as 1936, when Tel Aviv had only 150,000 residents. Today, when more than 3 million people live in the greater metropolitan area and the streets are congested and polluted, a fast, clean and efficient mass transit system seems more necessary than ever.

For a variety of reasons, most central being the different government agencies and planning committees' inability to agree on a viable arrangement, none of the plans have come to fruition and Tel Aviv, though advanced in other areas, still has a serious transportation problem. All that was supposed to change in 1997, when the Finance and Transportation ministries formed the government-owned Metropolitan Mass Transit System (NTA) to provide solutions to traffic problems in the Dan Region.

AFTER PICKING up the reins, NTA quickly hired a team of 90 experts and shortly afterwards presented its vision - a network of seven color-coded transportation lines spreading from Ra'anana and Kfar Saba north of Tel Aviv, all the way to Rehovot in the south and Ramle, Petah Tikva and Yehud in the east. The plan calls for a mixture of underground and surface rails as well as lines that will be based on BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). Altogether, the system is designed to spread over 176 kilometers and projected to carry 1.42 million people a day once it's completed. NTA has calculated that such a system, once running, will save the economy 48 million work hours a year, reduce CO2 emissions by 201,000 tons per year and reduce 6,500 car accidents every year.

NTA Director Yishai Dotan calls the system "essential." He likens the current public transportation situation, in which a network of trains and highways feed commuters into the city, where they then get stuck in gridlock and need to search for parking, to a grand, state-of-the-art waterway that brings water into a city and then distributes it to people's homes by oxcarts and buckets.

"It's ridiculous that people who drive across half the country in 50 minutes then have to spend the same amount of time traversing the few blocks to where they want to go in the city," Dotan tells The Jerusalem Post.

THE FIRST line on which planning was completed was the Red Line, the system's backbone, which starts from Petah Tikva, runs through Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv and Jaffa and ends in Bat Yam. The line, which spans 23 kilometers (half of it underground), will take passengers from one end to the other in about 45 minutes and is planned to carry nearly 400,000 passengers every day. During rush hour, trains will stop to pick up and drop off passengers at the 33 stations every two or three minutes. The trains will run from 5:30 a.m. until midnight every day except Shabbat.

In October 2003 an international tender for the Red Line was put out. The tender offered a B.O.T. (Build Operate Transfer) model for 32 years, after which it will be turned over to the government. Four groups, all made up of Israeli and foreign partnerships, took up the challenge and three ended up with qualified bids. On December 31, 2006, the winner - MTS, a group made up of six companies (two Israeli and four international) - was announced and given the green light to go ahead and start detailed planning and construction on the line. One of the main reasons that MTS was chosen, aside from its bid, which was NIS 400 million lower than the other groups, is because it offered a different tunneling method than its competitors. While the other two groups proposed using the cut-and-cover method, in which the different segments of the tunnel are built on the surface before covering them up and continuing on to the next, MTS proposed the deep-mining method, in which the majority of the tunneling is done underground, without having to disturb life on the surface.

MTS IS owned in equal parts by Israeli construction giant Africa Israel, the German Siemens, Egged, the Chinese civil engineering cooperative CCECC and the Portuguese infrastructure firm Da Costa Soares. All of the companies, aside from owning stock in the project, bring their respective strengths to the table. Along with Dutch rail operator HTM, the five stockholders all joined MTS in its offices in Azrieli and started working toward their goal.

Or is the person charged with overseeing this miniature United Nations. "In a situation like this, you can either get the Tower of Babel or an 'ingathering of the exiles.' We are aiming for the latter because, believe me, connecting Chinese with Portuguese with Germans and Israelis has the potential to be a real catastrophe," said Or, the former director of Derech Eretz, the company that built and operates Highway 6.


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