The Light-Rail Boondoggle

Tel Aviv should scrap plans for a light rail system and instead build an underground subway.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 17, 2010.)

How much money has already been spent on the Jerusalem light rail project, that will finally start operating one of these years? How much time have Jerusalem motorists wasted fighting the congestion in the many years during which the infrastructure for this project was being installed in the city’s streets? Will traffic in the city flow any more freely after the light rail finally starts operating than it did before this unfortunate project was begun? And who is responsible for this boondoggle?

Before attempting to answer these questions, we should take a look at the next light rail project, in gestation for more than 10 years, which recently ran into financing problems and whose mode of financing is about to be decided in the treasury – the Tel Aviv light rail, which will be partly underground and part aboveground. When it eventually begins operation, will it relieve the traffic jams in greater Tel Aviv? Unhappily, probably not.

For many years Israeli planners and politicians have sought solutions to the growing traffic congestion in the major urban areas, a blight that carries great economic costs and leads to urban sprawl as well as polluting the environment. Interminable discussions and investigations, as congestion worsened daily, led to the mistaken conclusion that light rail is the solution to Israel’s traffic problem.

Most Israeli ground transportation planners have, over the years, fantasized about the supposed benefits of light rail without really understanding the method’s limited potential. Unbelievable, but true. The decision makers, aware that building a subway represented a very considerable investment, and always being on the lookout for savings, thought they had found the golden mean between bus and subway. Light rail is cheaper than a subway to build, but it does not provide half its benefits. In fact, it provides no real benefit at all!

What the decision makers had discovered was a great way to waste money. The simple fact is that the only way traffic congestion in a densely populated urban area can be substantially relieved is by installing another level of transportation, either above street level or underground.

When an above-street-level system is unfeasible or judged ecologically unfriendly, the only solution, when feasible, is a subway. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that. Planners in New York, London, Cairo, Athens and innumerable other cities have reached that conclusion over the years.

A light rail car running aboveground takes up the same space on the street as a bus if not more, and thus provides no additional dimension that might relieve traffic congestion. True, it is powered by electricity and thus pollutes less than a bus, but that is just about its only benefit. In relation to the cost, it ends up being a waste of money. In an non-congested urban area light rail can be an attractive alternative to buses, but in congested urban areas it creates problems rather than solving them.

So, now to Israel’s urban traffic problems. In Jerusalem an underground system is probably not feasible. That may equally be true for an overhead system. So the city, after having gotten used to the light rail boondoggle, will have to continue to rely on various forms of motorized transport, and great effort should be invested in increasing the efficiency of that system.

As for Tel Aviv, the breakdown of the financing arrangement with the contractor chosen to build the light rail there presents an opportunity to reappraise the entire project and give the go-ahead for a proper subway that can relieve the terrible congestion characterizing traffic in this area, too, which is growing worse by the day. Too much money has already been wasted on the light rail system for greater Tel Aviv. Continuing with the present concept would mean throwing good money after bad.

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