November 15, 2011, Updated September 11, 2012

An American-born woman is steering Tel Aviv toward its first surface and subway light rail system, the biggest infrastructure project in Israel’s history.

Tel Aviv train

Courtesy of TAMMTS
Artist’s rendering of light rail on Jerusalem Street in Jaffa.

Golda Meir would be proud of fellow American expatriate Barbara Levine.

Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, proposed a light rail transit system (LRT) for Tel Aviv back in the early 1970s. Levine, a University of Pennsylvania-trained electrical engineer, is in charge of “rolling stock” — the vehicles, signaling, traction power, tracks and fare collection system — for the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Mass Transit System, which is now digging tunnels to fulfill Meir’s vision.

“I‘ve more or less spent my whole life being a pioneer of something,” Levine tells ISRAEL21c, “whether it was becoming the first woman engineer at [US national railroad] Amtrak, or to trying to put an LRT system in Tel Aviv.”

When Levine was brought aboard six years ago, she had just helped implement Amtrak’s high-speed Acela route on the US East Coast.

In early October, bulldozers started burrowing three 82-foot vertical shafts through which the mining equipment will be lowered to dig out the underground, Petah Tikva-to-Jaffa section of the Red Line. The entire route, planned to open in 2017, will reach as far south as Bat Yam and Holon.

In addition to the Red Line, Tel Aviv will get a Green Line, partly underground and partly at street level, and a Purple Line at street level. All are designed for easy transfers between LRT stops as well as bus stops and Israel Railway stations.

“This is a planned system,” says Levine. “If we can pull this off, it will be revolutionary for the Gush Dan region. A subway will change everything about how people use Tel Aviv and take advantage of its nightlife.”

Blazing new trails for women

Levine and her husband, Richard, moved to Israel in 1985. She had worked her way up at Amtrak and was next in line for the chief engineer’s position. But the Levines felt pulled to Israel, and built a house in Har Halutz in the Galilee. She started a technical writing consultancy before being wooed back by Amtrak in 1997 to work on Acela. For the next seven years, she bunked in a friend’s basement in Philadelphia and saw Richard and their son, Ariel, only every few months.

Subway digging

Courtesy of TAMMTS
Digging the Tel Aviv subway tunnel.

Now 62, Levine recalls jumping at the chance to come back to Israel and manage a project that so perfectly matched her experience. “I want to be able to say to my grandchildren that I was part of this,” she says.

Never afraid of breaking new ground, she had worked her way through graduate school as the first female plumber ever to be granted a license in New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

So it didn’t faze her to become part of the largest state-funded infrastructure project in Israel’s history — even though her Hebrew skills are minimal.

“I put my limitations forward and don’t hide behind them and make excuses,” says Levine, who oversees a staff of eight. “I flunked out of ulpan twice — the only time I’ve flunked out of anything academic in my entire life. I don’t let it stop me even though I live in the far north where most everyone speaks Russian and Arabic.”

Fortunately, English comes easily to most of the officials from the five municipalities through with the Red Line will run — Bat Yam, Holon, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ramat Gan and Bnai Brak.

“When they have concerns and interests, we work with them as best we can, to meet their needs without compromising our goals and objectives for the transit system,” Levine says. “This is new for everybody and questions come up, so we’re there for them.”

A ‘green’ mass transit project

The all-electric LRT will have a huge impact on citizens of the Tel Aviv suburbs, who currently have only two options for getting into town: driving a car or taking a bus, both of which are plagued by smoggy traffic snarls.

“We’re not looking to take people off buses,” stresses Levine. “The majority of our riders will be people who normally take cars. They’ll have a 15- to 20-minute ride to Tel Aviv on the LRT instead of a half hour- to an hour-long unpredictable drive.”

The impact on traffic and pollution should be noticeable.

“If you look at midtown Manhattan, it’s jammed with vehicles, but underneath are five million people on the subway,” Levine points out. “Tel Aviv will not look empty, but with thousands of people on the subway, the streets will become minimally passable, which they are not right now.”

Barbara Levine

Barbara Levine is in charge of rolling stock for the Tel Aviv Metro Mass Transit System.

Taking lessons from the light rail project in Jerusalem, which paralyzed the downtown commercial area for years, her agency is doing all it can to minimize the disruption to business owners and pedestrians. Though the construction will undoubtedly be a painful process, she admits, the tunnel-boring machines will not upset the street surface.

These machines are specially suited to digging in the “floating sandwich of many layers,” as Levine describes the soft, sandy soil of Tel Aviv. As they drill their way along, they insert concrete liners to hold the sand and water back. In some areas, concrete is injected first.

“The project is using very sophisticated methods of assuring no collapses,” says Levine. This technology has been proven in the Far East and in some coastal northern European cities.

Train manufacturers around the world will be invited to submit bids to supply vehicles meeting the agency’s specific requirements. Each is expected to cost between $2.3 million and $3.4 million.

Levine says the ideal train will be able to save and store energy generated by the braking process and use it for acceleration. This would mean saving upwards of 35 percent of energy over standard vehicles. “It’s a very green concept,” she says.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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