While Jerusalem’s light rail is set to start service on May 7, 2011, the city’s Big Dig ain’t over, Mayor Nir Barkat and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz warned some 500 businessmen, engineers, architects, town planners and miscellaneous machers at the launch of the Jerusalem Economic Forum at the Regency Hotel on Sunday.

While providing a sparkling dinner and networking opportunity, the forum – established at the urging of Barkat “to update industrialists in the city what government plans are” – failed to provide budgets or timetables about future municipal and national road, railroad, light rail and bus infrastructure projects aimed at relieving congestion and kick-starting urban renewal.

Katz, who took over as minister of transportation a year ago, noted that when he assumed the portfolio, the construction of the high-speed Tel Aviv-Ben-Gurion Airport-Jerusalem railway was “stuck.” That 28-minute train will chug into the new underground Binyenei Ha’uma Station opposite the Central Bus Station in five to six years, he promised.

Within the city, the Begin Highway will be extended south to Gilo from the Patt Junction to permit high-speed traffic from Gush Etzion to the north of the city without encountering a single traffic light, Katz noted without providing a date.

Similarly, the transportation minister spoke about major upgrades planned for Route 1, including a bridge and tunnel that will level out the steep topography from Sha’ar Hagai to the capital. These improvements will include a new interchange at Motza and a new highway branching off from there leading east to Mount Herzl, providing an alternative entrance to the city for commuters from the center of the country stuck in morning traffic jams.

Katz’s comment “It would be possible to write a book entitled How Not to Build a Light Rail, based on what went wrong with the construction of the Red Line,” drew wide laughter. He then explained that the 13.9 km. initial line will be extended 2.3 km. in the north to Neveh Ya’acov and 3 km. in the west to the Hadassah-University Medical Center at Ein Kerem. Similarly, the Blue Line busway will be extended south to Gilo and Har Homa some time in the indeterminate future.

Barkat was harsher in his criticism of the light rail project, berating the lack of accountability among the concessionaire CityPass, the Transportation Ministry and the Treasury. “We take responsibility [now] at city hall,” he said, promising to do “what’s best for the public rather than the engineers.”

Referring to Canary Wharf in London, Barkat said a new “City” will be built next to the future train station to replace Jerusalem’s moribund central business district. In the north, the defunct Atarot Airport will become a new hi-tech industrial zone, he added.

Moriah, a public company for infrastructure work, will take over the construction of new light rail lines, Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan project manager Nadav Meroz said. These will include a Yellow Line linking the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus and Givat Ram campuses. That new line, based on two spurs leading off from the Red Line, will involve relatively little new construction. The Green Line will extend from the planned new city center through Romema to link up with the Red Line at French Hill. No dates were given for the start or completion of construction.

No official schedule for the light rail’s proposed eight-line master plan has ever been made public. Similarly, there is no timetable for completing the Jerusalem ring road, whose eastern half would offer the possibility of linking Ramallah and Bethlehem with traffic bypassing Jerusalem.
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