At 9 a.m. last Monday, precisely on schedule, work commenced on Jerusalem's version of the Big Dig as workers started digging the foundations for the Bridge of Strings at the main entrance to Jerusalem, off Route 1. Two years from now, officials promise, the Bridge of Strings, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, will provide Jerusalemites with a gloriously beautiful suspension bridge of steel strings that will soar through the air. The light rail and pedestrians will travel on the bridge, enjoying its flow, while cars will pass easily below, enjoying the play of light and shadow. Traffic will move efficiently, they promise, and the entrance to Jerusalem will be worthy of our city. Until then Jerusalemites and their out-of town visitors had better look for alternate ways to come and go, the Transportation Ministry and Jerusalem Municipality advise. And they should brace themselves for two years of traffic mayhem as routes are closed, opened or redirected; bus lanes and automobile lanes cross, converge and intersect, and general chaos, covered with a thick layer of Jerusalem dust, ensues. "Well, maybe we exaggerated a bit," backtracks Samuel Tsabari, Project Manager for the Jerusalem Mass Transit System Project. "We wanted to warn the public because we believe that knowledge prevents fear. The traffic jams and congestion might not be as bad as we've made them out to be but they will be pretty bad." Not, he notes with irony, that this entrance to the city was smooth and easy before. "But now the public will have someone to blame." When the dust settles, the 140-meter-long bridge, stretching nearly 350 meters from ramp to ramp, will lift off near the IBA building (the former Sha'arei Tzedek Hospital), spanning 140 meters in the air until it touches back down on Sderot Herzl, a sweeping expanse of string-like metal girders, suspended from a 118-meter central column that is only one meter thick. And it will have cost the taxpayers NIS 135 million (most of it from government funds). Tsabari is quick to explain that congestion at the city entrance is not unique to Jerusalem, that anyway Jerusalem doesn't have enough entry roads and that new roads are currently being planned or constructed, including the soon-to-be opened Sderot Ha'uma, which will run just south of Binyanei Ha'uma and lead right into the Yirmiyahu-Bar-Ilan route, easing traffic in that direction. And trying to calm the Jerusalemites' anxiety, he promises that while traffic won't move smoothly over the next two years, it will move. And if it doesn't? Tsabari admits that there are no smooth alternatives. To the north, Route 443 offers one possible alternative, although it does go through the West Bank and doesn't connect until much further west along Route 1. For people who must approach the city on Route 1, Tsabari recommends turning off the highway at Sakharov Gardens and coming into the city through Givat Sha'ul although he acknowledges that that route was never intended to bear that volume of traffic. Motorists can also enter or leave the city through the Ein-Kerem or Hadassah Hospital routes scenic, narrow and winding roads that are usually clogged during rush hour as it is. Or we may take public transportation. True, buses will be stuck in the same traffic since the light rail, which is supposed to solve all our traffic woes and is the cause of this one, won't be finished until 2008. But at least we won't be the ones driving. Despite the difficulties, officials insist that the bridge and traffic rearrangements are being constructed with the utmost consideration for the public. An intricate acoustic system has been designed to shield the residents and passersby from the noise. People who spend most of their working hours at home will be offered alternative locations during the day. Homes too close will be provided with double glazing, which can't be opened, and air conditioners. Construction will commence at 6 a.m. and will end at 7 p.m. "There are two ways to build a major project like this short and painful or long and wearying. We chose long and wearying, which means we won't work at night, because it is better for the local residents, even if it's worse for everyone else." TSABARI INSISTS that after extensive study, the various planning and engineering committees reached the conclusion that there was no alternative to building a bridge at the entrance to the city. Due to the complexity of the area with three major thoroughfares (Rehov Yermiyahu, Sderot Herzl, and Jaffa Road, nine intersections, and a central bus station, all in close proximity the light rail, pedestrians, and motor vehicles simply cannot coexist at the same plane. The choice was either a tunnel or a bridge. Because of the Begin Boulevard tunnel and the planned tunnel for the high-speed train, which will pass by here, another tunnel was not practical. And anyway, he says, the destruction that construction of a tunnel would have caused makes the current situation look good. In order to "minimize" the disturbance, the planners decided on a suspension bridge, which only requires two support columns (compared to a "regular bridge," which requires numerous such columns). And once officials decided on a suspension bridge, City Engineer Uri Shetrit would hear of nothing less than a bridge designed by the renowned Calatrava. "A bridge that will be," he says glowingly, "worthy of Jerusalem." Furthermore, since the bridge will be constructed at factories in England and the Galilee, it will be brought to Jerusalem in pieces and assembled on site causing, we can assume, even greater chaos for a few days. Meanwhile, says Tsabari, "My best advice for now try to stay away from the intersection, especially at rush hour. And have patience. It may be chaotic for the first few weeks, but after a while, everyone will find their way, and it will ease up." But Professor Shlomo Hasson from the Hebrew University's department of geography and the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies says that, "Building a bridge like this is irresponsible and stupid." How could they close the road before they built an adequate alternative?" he fumes. Tsabari says that the light rail, which is meant to ease congestion in Jerusalem and resuscitate the city, couldn't wait for new alternative routes. "Resuscitate?!" scoffs Hasson. "By the time the two years are over, Jerusalem will be a ghost city. As it is, fewer and fewer people want to live in this city. Now they won't even want to visit." When the dust settles, we'll know. Until then try to find alternate routes. Or just stay home.


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