The end of the road

‘If the roads could cry out they would say “Enough!”’ Jerusalemites brace themselves for the final changes on Jaffa Road before the light rail officially begins operation.

Jerusalem bus 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem bus 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
If you’d like to take part in a historic event, and you read this in time, take a bus ride along Jaffa Road today. Because as of tomorrow night, the road – built by the Turks 150 years ago and one of Jerusalem’s busiest thoroughfares – is being shut down to traffic. From Saturday night onward, the only thing traveling along Jaffa Road between Kikar Tzahal and Mahaneh Yehuda will be the light rail.
Now in its final stages, and set to be completely operational this August, the light rail will begin test runs along Jaffa Road, from Kikar Tzahal, near the municipality, as far as the Central Bus Station. The bus lines that currently travel along Jaffa Road will be relocated to the nearby Agrippas, Hanevi’im and Yeshayahu streets.
Rehov Agrippas, which is currently one-way, will receive seven of the 21 bus lines that currently run along Jaffa Road. The busiest section of Agrippas, near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, will become a two-way road, and will be closed to private transportation between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The already congested area will become even worse, and travel to and from Mahaneh Yehuda will become more difficult than it already is – something many residents find hard to imagine.
“My experience has been for the last few years that nothing good has been coming out of anything having to do with the train, so I assume it will be one big mess again,” says Katamon resident Mark Goldberg, who made aliya from New Orleans in 1969 and has been shopping in Mahaneh Yehuda for more than 20 years.
“The light rail might help a little bit, but it’s losing the flavor of Jerusalem,” he adds.
Goldberg says he read about the impending changes in the papers, but hasn’t seen any signs or received any information about specific changes to the bus routes.
The light rail, a construction and planning nightmare for Jerusalem, has been delayed time after time.
Originally slated to be operational in 2006, it has been undergoing construction since 2001, and will now open no earlier than August of this year. CityPass, the consortium that won the 30-year concession to build and operate the rail, blames the Transportation Master Plan for the delays and claims it constantly made changes to the blueprints, causing disruptions to the construction process.
The Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, on the other hand, which represents elements from the Transportation Ministry, the Treasury and the Jerusalem Municipality, says CityPass just didn’t live up to its end of the agreement, and is trying to make excuses to avoid taking the blame for the delays.
In the meantime, the two parties have undergone arbitration over a number of issues, and have finally reached an agreement to begin test runs along Jaffa Road, but this, too, is a matter of dispute. According to Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, CityPass should conduct test runs for only 45 days, and ideally they should be at night, in order to disrupt the city as little as possible.
CityPass, on the other hand, says that it agreed to that plan, but that when it asked for compensation for work done throughout the night, the Transportation Master Plan refused. After arbitration, the final conclusion was that CityPass is to conduct test runs from now until August, during both the day and night.
RESIDENTS, AND especially store-owners in Mahaneh Yehuda, are furious over this recent development, and over the recently released plans for the relocated bus lines.
According to Eli Levi, head of the committee of business owners in the center of Jerusalem, the additional bus lines running along Agrippas will clog up traffic, and no one will be able to get to Mahaneh Yehuda.
He says his repeated requests to meet with the municipality to explain the problems with the plan have been ignored, and that overall Nir Barkat has been much less approachable about the matter than the previous mayor, Lupolianski.
Levi, who represents 1,100 owners of shops located between Merkaz Clal and Mamilla, says that if the plans go through and the light rail begins test runs along Jaffa Road, he hopes store owners will stand on the tracks in protest.
“You can’t keep diluting the area,” says Levi. “At first there were some road closures, and they let people get used to the changes. But now, without buses running along Jaffa Road, and Agrippas being closed to cars, you won’t be able to get here to go shopping without a helicopter,” he says.
“We have suffered greatly,” he adds. “We finished the last intifada, and then we started the intifada of the light rail. They close roads, open them, and close them again. They leave things unfinished, and they’ve destroyed half the city,” he charges.
Levi says that had the planning been done properly, had the store owners been informed step-by-step of what changes were going to take place, and had deadlines been met, they could have lived with it. But in his eyes the construction has been spontaneous – plans were not disclosed, and timelines were not met.
But Tomer Kaufman, head of the Lev Ha’ir Community Council, says there is an additional threat created by the new bus plans which is not being addressed. “Pedestrians already walk in the street on Agrippas because the sidewalks are so narrow; and now, with all these additional buses, a disaster is bound to happen.”
He cites an accident that took place on Rehov Hanevi’im in October, in which a six-year-old was killed – according to Kaufman because the sidewalk there is so narrow and there is too much traffic, as in the case of Agrippas.
But unlike Levi, he doesn’t expect anyone to come out and protest against it. Instead, he says the community council has refused to cooperate with the municipality, “so they won’t blame me when there is a tragedy.”
Additionally, he says the community council has been considering a court petition, though this has not yet occurred because of the costs involved, and has been in touch with a number of organizations in an effort to pressure CityPass and the Transportation Master Plan into changing the closure of Jaffa Road.
“This plan is going to end very badly and is destructive in terms of safety as well as for business,” says Kaufman.
Other issues have also come to light recently, for instance the inability of the fire department to deploy a ladder truck in case of a fire, because of the light rail’s power lines.
According to a Jerusalem Fire Department spokesman, the fire department has been coordinating with CityPass on how to deal with the issue, and will soon deploy a team of firefighters to test the area and see what steps need to be taken.
The Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan recognizes the inconvenience to the residents and store owners, but promises that the project is almost completed, and will all be worth it. “We are begging the public’s pardon, and asking them to be patient for a little longer.
They have been patient for the last seven years, and now we are in our final months,” says Elgrabli.
According to Elgrabli, the Transportation Master Plan has conducted several meetings with residents of the center of the city, and has begun posting signs and distributing materials informing the public of the upcoming changes. But logistically, Elgrabli says there just isn’t any other way – “there isn’t enough room on the road for buses to continue.”
He also stresses the overall importance of the light rail: “We are trying to give Jerusalem a new plan.
If we hadn’t built the light rail, the city would have collapsed under the traffic of cars. I hope we will build two more light rail lines within the next 10 years.”
But as of earlier this week, the official bus routes were still being tweaked, and the map of the new routes, included here, may still change.
MAHANEH YEHUDA shoppers and store owners are concerned about the impact the changes will have on them. Sixty-eight-year-old Ya’acov Ben Tura, who has been shopping in Mahaneh Yehudah twice a week for the past 60 years, says, “What they’re doing here with the train is very bad.”
He says he has no idea what is planned for the buses, and hasn’t been given any information.
Despite this, the Ramat Beit Hakerem resident, who travels to Mahaneh Yehuda by bus, doesn’t think Agrippas will be such a problem. “The traffic for private cars will be very difficult, but I’ll manage by bus. I’ll just have to carry my bags a little further.”
Nissim Aikushler, a 56-year-old fruit stand owner in Mahaneh Yehuda who has been working in the market for the last 47 years, “since fourth grade,” doesn’t believe the city will actually carry out its plans.
“With God’s help, they won’t close it [Jaffa Road] – people have to come to the market. In the meantime we’ve been having small demonstrations, and I’ll do whatever has to be done,” he says.
But, leaving the fate of Jaffa Road to God, he admits, “If God wants to close it, He’ll close it. It’s all in God’s hands.”
So far though, Aikushler hasn’t experienced too much disruption to his business, but he acknowledges that not being able to reach Mahaneh Yehuda by car could be a problem. But to him, that is just a threat.
“I don’t believe they’ll close Agrippas [to cars],” he declares.
“Why? Because it’s the main artery of Mahaneh Yehuda. They can say what they want, they can say anything. But to do – they haven’t yet done a thing.”
No matter what happens, he’s optimistic he can make it work, and he is happy the light rail is finally being implemented.
“Look at Mahaneh Yehuda – it’s a museum, it’s amazing. And I’m in favor of the train, I want there to be nice things for Jerusalem,” he sums up.
However, other store owners – like Eliezer Levi, owner of a felafel stand located on Agrippas – are very angry about the light rail construction, and especially the upcoming changes.
The second-generation owner of the 57-year-old eatery, which boasts a “best felafel in Jerusalem” sign, says he doesn’t know where he’ll park once Agrippas is closed, nor how he’ll manage to have products delivered.
He is also concerned about the congestion and pollution. “There will be lots of smoke from the buses, and lots of traffic. Mahaneh Yehuda thrives off private cars. Now that it has finally become so popular and more people are coming, they want to drive them away. Without private cars, there won’t be any business at all.”
He also has harsh criticism about how the project has been handled since day one.
“Who planned this? These people can’t be engineers. There was once this large stone they left in the middle – do you know how many people tripped over it, and how many people got injured from it? What’s been happening in this city because of the light rail is the worst thing possible. For years we have been suffering,” he laments.
“If the roads could cry out, they would say ‘Enough! Enough already!’ On Sderot Herzl they dug up, and built, and dug up again, a thousand times. They could have built an Eiffel Tower in the amount of time they’ve been working on this. Something stinks, and the state comptroller should look into it.”
When asked if he thinks the light rail, despite its construction and engineering shortcomings, is a good idea, he has negative views about this as well. “The light rail is very dangerous, we live in a place – it’s not Europe here. Here, there are, God forbid, terrorist attacks, and it’s very dangerous. I wouldn’t let my children or myself ride it. They’ll have to put lots of policemen at all the entrances. And it travels through Shuafat [in east Jerusalem] – do you know how dangerous that is?” The light rail has not been an easy project for anyone, but hopefully the end is near. Historic Jaffa Road will be forever changed, come Saturday night, and hopefully residents and shop owners will one day reap the benefits.
In the meantime, CityPass and the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan hope to provide residents with rides on the light rail along Jaffa Road for a nominal fee, beginning in April. But as one can gather by the slow progress and delayed time frames that have plagued the project since its inception, this, too, may not occur as planned.
All one can hope for is that come August 8, the light rail will be finished, once and for all.