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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The National Planning and Building Commission has rejected a petition filed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and other environmental organizations asking to replace a bridge planned for the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed train line with a tunnel.
The environmental organizations claim the 144-meter bridge will cause irreparable damage to the local ecosystem of the Yitla Gorge, in the Jerusalem Hills National Park, near Nataf. They say a tunnel would have little or no harmful effect.
A statement issued by the commission said the replacement route offered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority would add two years to the project. It said it had been convinced that with alterations made to the structure and design of the bridge, the natural environment would be protected.
"There is no dispute that the connection of Jerusalem to the coast with a high-speed train line is a project of huge national importance," the statement said. "There is also no dispute that the approved plan is the product of serious deliberations, which included all the relevant parties and where all alternatives were considered.
"In light of this, and despite the environmental damage to the Yitla Gorge, the National Commission decided not to re-examine the approved route, but to change the plan in order to reduce harm to the river."
In response, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) said: "The members of the National Planning and Building Commission went against the public when they chose the worst option from an economic, engineering and environmental perspective."
According to SPNI, more than 13,000 people signed a petition requesting a tunnel instead of a bridge. Independent examiners who had studied both options determined that the tunnel would not delay the project or increase the price of the line, SPNI said.
"How sad that while in the rest of the world, decisions regarding new infrastructures are made while taking into consideration the impact on nature and the environment, and the options that are chosen are those that do the least amount of damage, if any, in Israel, these considerations are still pushed to the sidelines and ignored by decision makers, despite public support," SPNI's Dov Greenblatt said.
"We hope the publicly elected members of government will show greater social accountability and instruct Israel Railways to choose the tunnel over the bridge," he said.
The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed train line was born in 2001 out of a desire to reduce traffic on the roads and offer a necessary public service for millions of passengers. The line was supposed to be part of a railroad master plan, which was to eventually network the entire country.
The overall plan was budgeted at NIS 20 billion and scheduled to be completed in 2008. Over the years, as the complexity of the venture - which includes extensive tunneling and bridges over difficult terrain - was revealed, the budget ballooned to NIS 29b. and the estimated completion date was pushed back to 2015. So far only half of the line, from Tel Aviv to Anava, has been completed.
The 2008 State Comptroller's Report listed a long series of blunders and evidence of mismanagement on the project. Israel Railways officials still don't know the final costs.
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