Jerusalem City Council opposition leader Nir Barkat appealed on Tuesday for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the serious delays in the city's light rail project, which he called a "national crime." "The whole city has become enslaved to the needs of the light rail project, which have become truly megalomanic," Barkat told a press conference at the site of one stretch of the rail project in the city's Beit Hakerem neighborhood. He said the opening of the system's first line, which had been expected in February 2009, was now slated for the middle of 2010. Barkat said that only 1 km of track on the 14-km line had been completed, while hundreds of millions of shekels from state coffers have been pumped into the project. Last week, officials confirmed the project had been temporarily derailed due to construction difficulties and a lack of manpower. The construction problems include incorrectly laid track on a main thoroughfare near the Mount Herzl military cemetery, which has since been ripped out and reinstalled. The NIS 4.2 billion project, which is being funded by the Transportation Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality, is the first of its kind in Israel. A spokesman for the project voiced disappointment over Barkat's stinging criticism. "We would have expected that a businessman like Barkat would support the development of a plan that has already led to over NIS 5b. in state and private investment in the development of the city even before the trains begin running," spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli said. He said 2 km of track had been completed, and that the remainder of the first line's route had been cleared. Elgrabli said the start of service would be delayed by at least six months. A spokesman for the City-Pass conglomerate, which is responsible for the work, attributed the delays in the project to both its novelty in Israel and the fact that the procedure to attain permits for each stage was "complicated." "We are negotiating with the State of Israel on the issue, and to set a new date for the light rail's operation," City-Pass spokesman Itsho Gur said. The Finance Ministry could fine the conglomerate - which is composed of three Israeli and two French companies - for any delay, officials said. "The failure of the light rail system is a lesson that is worthy of being taught in all schools of public administration about the ever-growing gap that exists between huge budgets that are administered by politicians and public officials, and their lack of knowledge, inexperience, and lack of administrative ability," Barkat said. In a letter to Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Barkat said the billions of shekels in public funding the project had received would have been much better utilized to stop the two-decade-old flow of tens of thousands of young Israelis out of the city. The Jerusalem Municipality referred queries on the issue to the light rail spokesman. The first line, the nearly 14-km-long "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.

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