Jerusalem's Jaffa Road turned into a traffic nightmare on Monday following a series of traffic changes as a result of infrastructure work on the city's light rail project, angering residents and drivers and leaving desperate downtown city merchants weighing public protests against the municipality as their stores lay empty. The Jaffa Road construction work, which entered a new stage this week, is expected to last nearly two years, city officials said. Central Jerusalem merchants said that their businesses would be ruined for the duration of the construction project. "This morning they destroyed us," city store owner Shimon Malka said on Israel Radio. "There is nothing left for us to do here but pack up and go," he said, demanding that the city relocate businesses adversely affected by the construction for the next year and a half. "This is ruining our business," concurred merchant Nissan Zuckerman. "We have no work because people are not coming to the city center. It is a catastrophe," he said. An emergency meeting of city merchants Monday discussed possible legal measures against the city, including asking a court to issue a stop-work order or holding a district-wide strike, participants said. As part of the traffic changes, many of the bus stops on Jaffa Road were rerouted to the nearby Hanevi'im Street, while sections of the central city thoroughfare became a one-way street, snarling traffic and creating huge traffic jams. Pedestrians walking on the major city artery made faster progress than the long row of buses, taxis and motorists lining the road. "We said that the light rail would be a disaster while it was still in its planning stage, and here we have the results before us," said Avraham Birenbaum, the head of the Jerusalem Merchants Association. "For two years, commerce on Jaffa Road and the city center will be destroyed," he said. He called the proposed merchant's protest "too little too late." City officials said that problems caused by the traffic changes were to be expected in the coming days and were "only natural," but that the long-term benefits the project afforded outweighed the short-term inconveniences. "As we've seen elsewhere in the world, [railway] work is bothersome and causes major inconvenience," said project manager Nadav Maroz. "My hope is that the amazing renewal of the city center after 100 years of stagnation, and the immense improvement in public transportation as a result of the light rail project, will justify the expected disturbances in the daily lives of city residents." The long-planned Jerusalem rail project is now scheduled to begin running in September 2010, after years of repeated delays. The NIS 4.2 billion project, which is being jointly funded by the Transportation Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality, is the first of its kind in Israel. Last year, officials confirmed that Jerusalem's light rail project, which was originally slated to be running by now, had temporarily stalled due to a lack of manpower and construction problems. The construction problems included mislaid tracking installed on the line on a main thoroughfare near the city's Mount Herzl military cemetery, which has since been ripped out and redone. In a recent report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss found that the government incorrectly estimated the public sector's investment in the project, which has soared from NIS 500 million in 2000 to NIS 1.3b. as of the end of 2007, an increase of 130 percent. When it finally gets off the ground, the project is meant to ease traffic congestion, improve access to and reduce smog in the city center. The inaugural line, the nearly 14 kilometer "red line," will run from the northern neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl via the city center, with 23 stops along the way. Last year, Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the repeated delays in the project, although his proposal was never taken up by city or state officials.

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