Take the blue train?

The municipality claims to have learned ‘many lessons’ from constructing the Red Line on Jaffa Road.

The municipality claims to have learned ‘many lessons’ from constructing the Red Line on Jaffa Road. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The municipality claims to have learned ‘many lessons’ from constructing the Red Line on Jaffa Road.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 2025, when a Jerusalemite who left the capital some time around 2016 returns for the first time, he might have some difficulty recognizing parts of his native city. But we are not there yet. For the moment, the amount of opposition and anger raised by some plans for the physical changes planned here may cause delays and perhaps even changes in the program.
Since last week, the plan for the route of the light rail’s Blue Line has been open to opposition, rejection or specific objections by the public, as legally required. Officially, the deadline for submitting objections is at the end of this month, but as city councilwoman Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (Yerushalmim), holder of the municipality’s transportation portfolio, pointed out to In Jerusalem, “Even after that, significant issues will still be heard.”
After the first step – the approval of the local planning and construction committee – the plan is now in the hands of the Interior Ministry’s district planning and construction committee.
This is the time for anyone who objects to the plan or any part of it to submit an objection. By law, the committee must consider every remark, question or objection. However, the committee also has the statutory right not to accept these objections, as long as it can prove that the decision was made for the good of the public.
Yet strong opposition from a very large part of the public cannot be totally disregarded. The committee has the prerogative to include changes in the proposed plan that would take into account the objections, or cancel it completely.
In this particular case, and considering the tremendous amount of public money already invested in the light rail project, the chances of scrapping the project are slim. But at least on one particular point – the segment along Emek Refaim Street, or its alternative path along Hamesila Park on Harakevet Street – the last word hasn’t yet been uttered.
A brief reminder of how things reached this point: The plot on which Hamesila Park runs is not city property; it belongs to Israel Railways and was the path of the train that operated for more than a century, connecting Jerusalem to the center of the country. About 10 years ago, mayor Uri Lupolianski requested that Israel Railways “lend” the plot to the capital. Later on, Mayor Nir Barkat supported a local residents’ initiative to use that plot not as a highway but as a park for the benefit of the residents – and Hamesila Park was born.
Throughout that period, the plot has remained the property of Israel Railways. Hamesila Park continues as an “in-between project” until a definitive decision is made about what to do with the plot.
What seems so natural today – walking or biking along this path – is the result of a dream shared by a group of residents. No wonder, then, that the thought of a light rail passing along Hamesila Park (or even a small part of it) is nothing short of a nightmare for them.
Following the outcome of the management by CityPass of the original Red Line along Jaffa Road, the decision was made at Safra Square that from now on, all additional planned lines would be in the hands of the municipality. Hence today, despite the existence of an administration that runs the Master Plan for Mass Transportation in Jerusalem, the mayor and his staff are the ones who run the project and supervise it.
That brings us to the heated debate over the segment of the planned Blue Line that would run through the German Colony. Not surprisingly, residents who live on the streets near Emek Refaim would like to see the line go along Harakevet, whereas supporters and activists who promoted Hamesila Park consider any attempt to touch it a sacrilege.
In fact, three years ago, following residents’ requests not to interfere with Hamesila Park in any way, Barkat decided the solution would be for the line to go along Emek Refaim. A municipality spokesman added that “many lessons have been learned from the first stage of the light rail project along Jaffa Road, and they will all be implemented in the next step for the Blue Line, to fully minimize any damage [to the area] during the work.”
IF THE plan implements the Emek Refaim solution, it would mean about two years of heavy roadwork with, at the end of the process, a street deprived of its many trees (some of them very old). Some of the structures along the street would be demolished, such as the building that houses the Coffee Mill cafe.
Itzik Adesh, the urban planner of the Ginot Ha’ir local council, says he is not taking a position on Emek Refaim versus Hamesila and is only presenting all the alternatives to the residents, “so they can make a decision in full acknowledgment of the situation on the ground. We are simply a platform to show all sides. If, finally, there is a decision to change the route of this section, our job will be to present all aspects of the new decision, but we are not there at the moment.”
An independent figure who is still deeply involved in terms of knowledge of the city’s needs is Israel Kimhi, director of the Jerusalem studies desk (policy planning) at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Kimhi says there is no question that the most natural and logical path should be Hamesila, along Harakevet Street, but adds, “Since there is quite a successful park there now, it is no longer realistic – and the only alternative will have to be Emek Refaim.”
Kimhi notes that, generally speaking, running light rail on commercial streets is the right thing to do, as it provides a better service to both residents and surrounding businesses, and “this has been proven everywhere.”
Asked about the predicted large-scale damage this will cause to Emek Refaim’s ecosystem, Kimhi repeats that while the choice to run the new line down the German Colony’s main drag seems like a difficult one, “since there is now a park along Harakevet Street, this is no other option. From now on, what should be done and focused on is the way to do it, the way to make [changes] for the better.”
One of the options Kimhi suggests is for Emek Refaim to implement the same solution that prevailed for Jaffa Road. “Why not banish all vehicles from the street and leave it just for the light rail? I understand there will be only a single track, because there is not enough space [Emek Refaim being a relatively narrow street] – so why not do it that way?” In any case, for now, it appears the street will not be transformed into a pedestrian thoroughfare alongside the Blue Line, as was done on Jaffa Road. Accordingly, many gardens along the street will have to be shortened, with sidewalks shrinking to almost nothing. With the light rail on one track, there would still be room for buses, taxis and cars (especially those of area residents).
With this plan, the narrow byways leading into Emek Refaim such as Lloyd George would have to take all private vehicular traffic, even running through one of the neighborhood’s most cramped alleys, known as Simtat Jimmy. Residents point to all of this as contributing to their collective ordeal.
At a recent residents’ meeting, theater director Hadas Ophrat (recently awarded the Israel Prize), who lives on one of the small streets off Emek Refaim, spoke of the light rail as a case of “blocking of arteries.” Ophrat explained that the delicate urban fabric of the German Colony is based on smooth access and flow, which would be totally and irreversibly sacrificed; he requested an alternative before it is too late.
MOST EXPERTS on traffic and urban light rail agree that, in the long run, once the roadwork is completed, neighborhoods are significantly upgraded. But the question persists: What would happen to the restaurants and stores on Emek Refaim until then? Business owners on the street have gathered in an ad hoc association led by Assaf Obsfeld, and they all prefer to let him do the talking and represent them. Obsfeld says that nothing in the attitude of the municipality, thus far, has indicated that anyone is taking Emek Refaim’s merchants seriously. “For the moment we only hear talk and ideas, but nothing engaging, nothing beyond promises that will be implemented – or not.”
A source at the Master Plan says the lessons from constructing the Jaffa Road project have been learned and that the maximum will be done to minimize damages. Obsfeld remains skeptical and continues to meet with the mayor and city council members.
The Master Plan source does admit that a decision on how to conduct the construction is still being debated: Should all of it be done in one fell (and difficult) swoop? Or should the work be undertaken segment by segment, which would take more time but would allow for a modicum of normal life in the interim? In Jerusalem then asked about the businesses: Who would compensate the owners (if at all), and on what basis? Would it be through special loans or significant reductions in taxes or both, or in some other way? “For the moment,” says the source, “nothing is settled. We are still in the process of studying and looking for the best solution. Yet obviously, business owners’ concerns have altered the situation, since until they began to raise the matter, hardly anyone said a word about the issue.”
As for the Harakevet Street option, it seems easier, at least at first glance. The street is wide enough to accommodate the light rail alongside the pedestrian and bicycle paths on one side with, at most, a reduction – some say perhaps a removal – of the road open for vehicles, for the benefit of the light rail. There is also the great advantage that there are no businesses along the street that would have to be compensated.
That leaves the safety issue. Many observers say that running a train, even a slow-moving one like the light rail (at barely 15 kph), along a track beside which so many children play is a recipe for potential accidents.
Meanwhile, council member Hassan-Nahum is deeply involved in the process. On July 18, she is scheduled to hold a meeting between resident representatives for the two options – Emek Refaim and Hamesila – and the head of the local planning and construction committee, Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, as well as professionals involved in planning the line. This is to be followed a week later by a general meeting with all interested residents. Both meetings are slated to take place at the Ginot Ha’ir community center.
The last word remains in the hands of at least three players: Barkat, who, for the moment, favors the Emek Refaim option; the district planning and construction committee, which has the statutory right to decide; and the public, which, as taxpaying residents, have the right to present their views and influence the choices of the mayor and the committee.
Those who wish to learn more or state their opinion about the light rail may contact city council member Laura Wharton, whlaura@jerusalem.muni.il; the municipality’s public transportation department, makobi@jerusalem.muni.il; municipal traffic engineers, abasem@jerusalem.muni.il and FrElena@jerusalem.muni.il.