Residents of neighborhoods adjoining the Jerusalem Forest are determined to move forward with their campaign against a four-lane interchange planned for their backyard, despite an indication from High Court judges that they are likely to reject the plea.
Members of the Forum of Organizations for the Jerusalem Forest, which serves as the umbrella group for concerned residents and environmentalists, filed a High Court petition earlier this year against plans to build the future Route 16 – a case that judges began discussing on Monday.
“It’s our only chance,” Dr. Elisheva Rigbi, a member of the forum, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “We think that there’s still a chance that they will reconsider.”
First approved by the Interior Ministry’s National Infrastructure Committee in July 2011, Route 16 is planned to link Route 1 (the main highway to Tel Aviv) with the Menachem Begin Highway to ease traffic at the city’s main entrance. In addition to the controversial interchange, the plans involve the construction of two tunnels and an access road.
The two tunnels – 1,500 and 1,350 meters long – would stretch roughly from Motza to the Har Nof neighborhood and from the Yefe Nof neighborhood to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, meeting at an aboveground interchange near the Jerusalem Forest’s Revida Stream. An access road would connect the Givat Shaul industrial zone to the interchange in the valley below.
In their petition, forum members claim that the approval process for the plans was illegal, as it neglected to include alternatives to the proposed project.
They also question the economic viability of the plan, which is estimated to cost at least NIS 1.5 billion, according to Rigbi.
The establishment of additional roads for private vehicles also contradicts the government’s declared intention to encourage use of public transportation, the petitioners argued.
Prof. Alon Tal, an environmental expert who attended the hearing on Monday, confirmed that the judges did, in fact, tell the petitioners that they were likely to reject the appeal.
The judges presented them with the opportunity to withdraw the petition in order to save the court costs as well as to avoid a negative precedent in the case, explained Tal, who is a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research and serves on the board for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
While not objecting in principle to the construction of Route 16, KKL-JNF favors the construction of one continuous tunnel from Route 1 to the Begin Highway, without an above-ground interchange in the middle of the Jerusalem Forest.
Tal stressed that the sympathies of the head of the threejudge panel in the case, Justice Hanan Meltzer, were “clear from the start,” adding that Metlzer formerly served as the lawyer for the Trans-Israel Highway.
“When judges are initially negative it doesn’t always bode well,” Tal said. “But Israel is the land of miracles and the main forest in the holy city is certainly deserving of one.”
The firm responsible for implementing the plans, Netivei Israel – the Israel National Roads Company – argued that the Revida interchange is fully compatible with KKL-JNF forestry standards and has received approval from landscape restoration experts.
As a result of the tunnels leading to the interchange, the Jerusalem Forest will receive additional trees, trails, and upgraded pedestrian paths, the company said.
Meanwhile, the area for which the interchange is planned makes up only one percent of the total area of the Jerusalem Forest, Netivei Israel argued.
Insisting that the interchange’s construction would cause no environmental damage, Netivei Israel said that the plans provide greater access to the forest and make the Nahal Revida area a destination for tourists.
“If the new road is not built, the high level of air pollution and noise on the Herzl artery and in the area will continue, due to the traffic loads generated,” a statement from Netivei Israel said.
Paul Lenga, chairman of the Forum of Organizations for the Jerusalem Forest, told the Post that he and his neighbors have elected to continue with the fight because they “want to see a judgment in writing.” For example, he explained, there may be some elements of the judgment that agree with and thereby legitimize portions of the petition.
“They may reject the petition and if they do reject it we understand, but there may be some positive aspects that we could build on,” Lenga said, adding that such aspects could set a precedent for future environmental struggles.
In addition, even if two of the three judges vote against their petition, the agreement of one judge could add further legitimacy to their cause from a legal perspective, according to Lenga.
“Third, they indicated that they would not accept the petition, but they didn’t say that they have made a decision yet,” he said.
The judges may encounter difficulties while formulating their final decision, causing them not to reject the petition in the end, Lenga explained.
“We feel that our case – both due to the importance of the Jerusalem Forest and also on a matter of principle – is too important to be brushed aside without being addressed by the court,” Rigbi added.
The judges must take into account environmental justice and the rights of private citizens against development companies, she continued.
“The balance has not been struck in this case,” Rigbi said.