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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
A day after his election victory, Jerusalem Mayor-elect Nir Barkat pledged to tackle one of the most controversial city infrastructure projects - the repeatedly delayed light rail system.
However, it was unclear Thursday whether he would be able to dramatically change or stop the billion-dollar, government-approved project.
Barkat, who has been a long-time opponent of the project, said that he would "examine better alternatives" to the light rail system, including the use of environment-friendly buses. He added that he would immediately seek a fundamental discussion with government officials to find the most fitting solution beyond speeding up the infrastructure work on project.
"Even when it is completed, there are better solutions than this megalomanic idea," he said.
He said he would closely examine the project's feasibility, and would consider cheaper, more effective alternatives, if such were found.
"It could be that there are cheaper and faster solutions to be found that will better utilize taxpayer dollars," Barkat said, adding that that new bus lines with state-of-the-art environmental technology could be a solution at a fraction of the price.
However, Barkat's comments drew criticism from officials involved in the project.
"We have reached the point of no return. The mayor will not be able to stop the project," an official said.
After years of delays and derailments, the light rail is now scheduled to begin operating in September 2010.
Last year, officials confirmed that the project - which should have been up and running by this year - had stalled due to a lack of manpower and first-time construction problems, including incorrectly installed tracking on the line near the Mount Herzl military cemetery. That tracking has since been ripped out and redone.
A spokesman for the light rail project on Thursday downplayed Barkat's criticism.
"We have no doubt that the mayor will be convinced of the benefits of the project," said Shmuel Elgrably.
In a recent report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss found that the government had incorrectly estimated the public sector's investment in the project, which soared from NIS 500 million in 2000 to NIS 1.3 billion by the end of 2007 - 160% beyond projections.
When it finally gets moving, the project is meant to ease traffic congestion, improve access to the city center and reduce air pollution. But in the meantime, it has created a traffic nightmare for Jerusalem motorists and turned many parts of the city into big dusty, inaccessible construction sites.
The inaugural line, the nearly 14-kilometer "red line," will run from the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl via the city center, with 23 stops along the way.
As mayor, Barkat could nix the additional lines planned in the project and use his office to speed up the notoriously slow pace of the infrastructure work, something current Mayor Uri Lupolianski failed to do.
Two months ago, the municipality finally acknowledged severe disruptions and postponements in the construction, and faulted the international conglomerate carrying out the work.
The admissions, outlined in a letter to the Finance Ministry, cited a lack of an updated stage-by-stage working plan, limited working hours, and insufficient manpower and construction equipment.
The condemnation of the delays, just two months before the mayoral elections, followed a boisterous City Hall protest by local merchants who said the infrastructure work on Jaffa Road was ruining their businesses.
For its part, the City-Pass conglomerate placed the blame right back on the Jerusalem Municipality, saying the city had failed to issue building permits for many months, thereby delaying the work.
As city opposition leader, Barkat had called to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the delays in the project, but his proposal was never taken up by city or state officials.
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