09/19/2010 22:46

Jerusalemites are not likely to forgive or forget the trauma of the 10 years of construction and endless disruptions to traffic caused by the Jerusalem Light Rail project

The long-awaited inauguration of the Jerusalem Light Rail line, the first of its type in the country, is scheduled, barring further delays, for April. Already five years behind schedule due to bureaucratic bungling, a total lack of experience with this mode of transportation and horrendous project management, construction has wreaked havoc in the life of the city over most of the last decade.

The price tag, needless to say, double the initial estimates, is staggering – about a $1 billion (NIS 500 million in fines alone paid to the CityPass consortium that is building the tramway for the delays). Not since Herodian times has there been such an enormous expenditure of public treasure.

This, not for an entire system as was originally planned, but for just a single line with 23 stations connecting Mount Herzl with Shuafat, an Arab neighborhood, and Pisgat Ze’ev via the city center. A long list of excellent public improvements in the town center, along with the addition of advanced buses on exclusive lanes connecting Talpiot with Har Hotzvim support the plan.

Among the main arguments given by the planners for the decision to build the line was that buses are slow, pollute and won’t succeed in getting people to stop using their cars. They claimed that these high capacity (each carriage having double the capacity of a bus), speedy, quiet, green, comfortable and modern trams, will. Their main goal: improving access to and enlivening Jerusalem’s deteriorating city center through the increased use of public transport and a major program of street improvements to include the conversion of most of Jaffa Road into a pedestrian mall. Convinced of the plan’s viability, many developers are building alongside the route in the center of town.

The planners managed somehow to seriously understate or neglect mention of the nightmarish social, economic and environmental impacts that would be the result of having to relocate and renew all of the existing utilities infrastructure – water, sanitation, electrical and communication lines, over the full length of the exclusive right of way for some 14 kilometers – even before the very first sections of rail could be laid down. So extreme was the situation, that upon his election as mayor, Nir Barkat announced that he intended to scrap the entire project. But of course the point of no return had long before been reached.

CALATRAVA’S GRACEFUL, light and elegant suspension bridge at the western entrance to the city, designed to carry the trams over this complex intersection, was unnecessary. Beautiful, but irresponsible. Suspension bridges enabling unusually large spans without the need for intermediate supports were first conceived to enable the crossing of rivers. But where’s the river here? Vehicular traffic could just as easily have passed under a bridge constructed in the normal fashion at just a fraction of the NIS 300 million this bridge has cost.

But these were just a few of the facts the planners neglected to mention. A fixed rail line hasn’t the reach of a city bus capable of getting anywhere there is a paved road.

As there’s just a single line, reaching your destination in the center of town will require most commuters to transfer from bus to rail and back again, or from car to rail and back, from the several park-and-ride garages along the length of the route. If too many decide not to make the transfer, the line will fail economically. All hinges on the success of the transfer scheme.

Unfortunately, too, in contradiction to the planners’ arguments, Jerusalem is not to be compared with other historical cities of similar size such as Valencia, Spain or Nantes, France, where light rail systems have met with brilliant success. Security has always been a major concern here. The tramway’s routes are fixed, their schedules known. An advanced communications system will provide information on travel times.

Also, unlike buses, trams cannot stop quickly or be detoured in case of emergency. The tram cars have been fitted with special glass to resist stones and firebombs. Yet only most recently, with the actual operational deadline fast approaching, did the police force issue a statement to the effect that it could not carry the security burden for the line.

Can it be that the planners downplayed this critical issue and that the light rail solution is entirely inappropriate to Jerusalem’s security context? ANOTHER IMPORTANT matter, still not finally decided, is signalization priorities. If the rail line wins over vehicular traffic as it must, many vital inter-neighborhood connections will be affected. Finally, with far less space allocated to parking, finding a spot for your car will become far more difficult. Perhaps that, at least, is for the best.

Whatever happens, Jerusalemites are not likely soon to forgive or forget the trauma of the 10 years of construction, the endless disruptions to traffic, the businesses ruined, the broken bones caused by tripping over rubble or the NIS 1 million party thrown by mayor Uri Lupolianski before the election upon completion of the bridge and prior to the torturous work of having to tear up Jaffa Road had even begun.

And what of the “workers,” chatting, eating or resting in the shade. Just watching them (five managers for every man working on a single square centimeter of paving) drove many of us up the wall. Together with the minister of transportation, some of the very same people that brought us the Holyland, former mayors Ehud Olmert and Lupolianski, took the decisions here too. Let us pray that this time, they were far better informed.

One thing is certain. Naïve enthusiasm over these attractive, shiny, streamlined, French-built carriages has no place here. It is entirely possible that this gigantic project has solved one problem at the cost of creating and compounding a thousand others. Although of late there has been renewed talk of extending the line and building an additional one, justifying the prohibitive sums already spent won’t be easy. Wasting public money is a slap in the face to the have-nots, of whom there are far too many living in Jerusalem today. The real test still lies ahead.