It can happen without warning. You’ve plugged in a Tel Aviv destination to Waze, the Israeli navigation app, and begun driving, only half paying attention to the recommended route.

It’s only when you’ve reached Highway 1, the main thoroughfare leading to Tel Aviv from points south, that you realize you’re being directed to take the fast lane, the relatively new carpool lane that leads into Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Freeway.

At this point you may only have a brief moment to determine your course of action. And so, despite the digital NIS 7, NIS 17 or even the maximum NIS 85 (42-425) charge appearing on the electronic boards above the highway, you just may decide to exit to the left and benefit from the traffic-free, two-lane toll highway.

The fast lane is so fast, you even make it to that meeting on time.

Weeks later, an unhappy surprise arrives in the mail: a NIS 113 bill for a five-minute ride, reflecting the normal charges plus extra fees for not paying at the point of entry.

Cars that use the fast lane without paying at the time, or registering, are photographed by a camera that sends the license plate number to the Transportation Ministry, and the car is identified through the database of registered vehicles, explained Avi Ben-Ari, the director of marketing at Nativ Hamahir, or Fast Lane, as the government company is called.

Opened in 2011 as a government venture managed by the Cross Israel Highway Ltd, the fast lane is one of the country’s newer infrastructure projects, built to alleviate the traffic buildup that takes place each day on the road leading to Tel Aviv. It wasn’t primarily intended for individual drivers making their lone way into the city, though; the idea was to give fast lane preference to public transportation and carpools.

A map of the fast lane and all incoming roads leading to and from Tel Aviv (Courtesy Fastlane)

A map of the fast lane and all incoming roads leading to and from Tel Aviv (Courtesy Fastlane)

Buses and cars carrying three to four passengers or more (depending on the time of day and amount of traffic) don’t have pay to travel the fast lane. Individual drivers can also benefit from the fast lane by parking their cars at the 2,000-space parking lot, and then taking a free shuttle, which currently reaches Tel Aviv’s government complex near the Azrieli buildings and the diamond exchange in Ramat Gan.

“It’s the only system of its kind in the world,” said Ben-Ari. “It’s actually very civic-minded, because those who drive and pay are funding the buses and carpools and shuttles, and it still gets them to Tel Aviv faster.”

When traffic builds up on Highway 1, as it does during the morning hours, the price for taking the fast lane is raised.

The fast lane does decrease the heavy, time-consuming traffic that builds up each morning on the approach to the Ayalon, Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfare, starting at the Ben Gurion Airport intersection, said Ben-Ari. With three highways — Highway 1 (from Jerusalem),  Highway 412 (from Rishon Lezion, Nes Ziona and Rehovot) and Highway 4 (from Rishon Lezion, Yavne and Ashdod) — converging onto Highway 1 and the approach to Tel Aviv, the plan was to “get people to leave their cars and take shuttles,” said Ben-Ari.

The shuttles are free from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m.

“That’s a huge incentive,” he said.

The fast lane opened in 2011; here a view of it from the road leading out of Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

The fast lane opened in 2011; here a view of it from the road leading out of Ben Gurion Airport (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

There’s also been a slow but steady increase in the number of private cars using the fast lane and registering for it — registration is free — which must be done if a driver wants to avoid stopping each time to pay.

In fact, registration is relatively simple, and can be done by phone (*3633) or through the fast lane website. Or, as many do, said Ben-Ari, by taking a few extra minutes on the ride into Tel Aviv and exiting to the wood-and-glass building at the side of the highway.

“Most people are in a rush when they come in here,” said Hofit Natan, one of the clerks who handles the registration process. “And they don’t usually remember their license plate numbers, either.”

And so, Natan guides them to a back window, where she can read their license plate numbers.

Minutes later, the registration process is over and drivers are back on the road, driving along the red expanse of the fast lane, glancing loftily over at the lanes of cars backed up before the Tel Aviv exits.

“It’s made a big difference in the morning traffic jam on Highway 1,” said Ben-Ari. “In fact, you benefit from the fast lane even if you don’t use it. We have 2,000 cars in our lot every day; I think that makes a 20-minute difference in that wait on Highway 1.”

In the near future, the fast lane folks are considering adding another level of parking and more shuttle buses, possibly to Allenby and Rothschild, or the Kiryat Atidim business park.

And here’s a tip from Ben-Ari, for those coming from the airport and heading to Tel Aviv: Tell the taxi driver to take Route 40, which can access the fast lane – and it’ll be free if there are three or more passengers.

“It’s a little farther, but it saves time,” he said. “That’s what we’re always looking for.”