Environmentalists rail against bridge for planned J'lem-TA train line

Interior Ministry report shows proposed route would irreparably damage ecosystem at Yitla Gorge.

Malha train 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Malha train 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Days before the final decision is to be made on the route of the high-speed rail line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, environmental organizations continue to press for an alternative to a section of the route that they claim will cause irreparable damage to the local ecosystem. The area in question is the Yitla Gorge in the Jerusalem Hills National Park, near Nataf. As things stand, there are two options on the table. The first, which was authorized in the original plans and supported by Israel Railways, is a 144-meter bridge connecting two tunnels on either end. The second option, which is being advocated by the environmental organizations, is a continuous underground tunnel. In a report that surfaced earlier this week, an independent examiner hired by the Interior Ministry's basic planning committee to assess and make recommendations about public concerns regarding the train line, determined that the route proposed by Israel Railways would permanently harm the wildlife and foliage in the region and that while the restoration efforts scheduled for after completion might reduce the harm, it would not return things to the way they had been. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other green organizations were quick to pounce on the report as proof of their claims. "The report clearly reinforces the SPNI's position, that the construction of an expansive bridge over the Yitla River will cause grave and irreparable harm to the environment in this valuable and unique area, compared to the tunnel alternative that will avoid all the damage and destruction," they wrote on their Web site. But while the report warned of environmental damages, the examiner didn't warrant them as sufficient cause to choose one route over the other. Engineer Meir Giron left both options on the table, leaving the final decision up to the planning committee. In the same report, the examiner addressed concerns raised by other complainants, representing residents of the nearby towns, over the expected traffic, noise and pollution that would arise as a result of the construction. Especially concerned were residents of the small town of Mesilat Zion, who would likely suffer most due to the extensive dumping of excess dirt and construction rubble in a nearby quarry. Israel Railways officials have rejected any deviation from the original plan, arguing that any change would demand widespread replanning - a move that would lead to extra expenditures and delay construction. They warned that the project might even be canceled. Earlier this week, the State Control Committee in the Knesset discussed the planning and construction aspects of the long-overdue, NIS 7 billion project. The 2008 State Comptroller's Report listed a long series of blunders and evidence of mismanagement, including faulty planning, insufficient regulation, underestimated expenses, lack of oversight, financial unfeasibility and even a case of suspected nepotism. Israel Railways officials still aren't sure of the final costs of the line. Members of the committee expressed their dissatisfaction with how the project was being run. Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines called for the formation of a parliamentary investigative committee to study the project's failures and warned people not to blame the environmentalists for the setbacks. "Blaming the environmental organizations for delays in the project is a distortion of reality, since the failures mentioned in the report have nothing to do with the Yitla crossing," he said.