Why I oppose the current plan for the light rail’s Blue Line

Emek Refaim Street today, where it intersects with Rachel Imenu Street (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Emek Refaim Street today, where it intersects with Rachel Imenu Street
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 I have been a Jerusalem city councillor for almost 14 months. As soon as I came into the council as the transportation portfolio holder, I was faced with a major dilemma.
The Jerusalem Light Rail will be the city’s main transportation system, the answer to our growing city’s long-term transportation problems. There are parts of the city that will greatly benefit from a line going through their neighborhood: good transportation brings social mobility for the weaker populations.
Effective and accessible transportation is a way to ensure that all parts of the city are connected to the center and to each other. Furthermore, we need an efficient mass transportation network to incentivize people to give up their cars.
The light rail’s Blue Line is the third line of a mass network that will change the face of our city within the next two decades. The Blue Line will begin in Ramot and pass through the center of the city. One extension will reach Malha and another Gilo. The Malha extension travels down the German Colony’s Emek Refaim Street, towards Oranim Junction, through the southern part of the Mesila Park, on to Pat, then continues to its final destination.
My party, Yerushalmim, has advanced many sustainable transportation initiatives in the last few years: we were the force behind bicycle lanes across the city that are planned for end of this year and the shuttle buses from the southern neighborhoods of the city to Har Hotzvim, which have been a roaring success.
In addition, we have advanced a shared car system called “Car 2 Go” and a renta- bike initiative that should be with us by the end of 2017. So why did we choose to vote against the Blue Line in the local building and planning committee? The short answer is that the current plan will not serve the residents it was designed to serve.
The current plan is flawed from a planning perspective. After a month of hearing over 1,700 objections, we learned that residents of the north of the city, who are mainly ultra-Orthodox, are unhappy that they will not enjoy the convenience of a shared station for the Blue Line and the Green Line that serves their neighborhoods. In the south of the city, there are objections from the Malha residents that the planned location for the station is outside a residential street instead of at a central and accessible point. And finally, the 800 meters of line that will be crossing Emek Refaim is at best a bad Plan B and at worst completely devastating to one of the jewels in the city’s crown.
Emek Refaim was never the original plan for the Blue Line in this section of the city; it was originally meant to have been on the Mesila Park. In my opinion, the mayor made a good decision not to destroy a park that has truly become a game changer for the neighborhood.
However, Emek Refaim was collateral damage, offered up as a poor alternative.
On a narrow historic street, less than half the width of Jaffa Road, the plan is for a train track alongside a car lane. This will force all the traffic onto even narrower side streets with no sidewalks. The Mesila Park, which the mayor wanted to protect, will become a major traffic artery, shattering the peace and quiet that that area enjoys today.
As there are both a train line and a car lane, a protective barrier may have to be erected between the two lanes for safety.
This would truly change the entire character of the street. In the northern part of Emek Refaim, trains will go down one track in two directions, and 11 side streets along Emek Refaim will be required by law to have traffic lights.
The planners plowed a car lane through a health-fund building to connect the park road to Emek Refaim without realizing they would have to destroy a building in order to make their plan work, THE CITY – COMMENTARY Is the tail wagging the dog? highlighting the lack of thought that went into designing this route.
To add insult to injury, the way the plan was passed was bullish, unethical and borderline illegal. When I inherited the transportation portfolio, I learned of the strong opposition to the train line going down Emek Refaim. The residents felt betrayed by their exclusion from the process. I heard from hundreds about how hurt they were that this plan had been thrown at them with no prior warning or any type of consultation. Many residents learned about this major upheaval to the status quo only from the newspaper. Of course, the planners claimed that they held a few public participation meetings with the community council. They blamed the community council for not opening the discussion to the public at large. Regardless of whose fault it was, the end result was the same: people still felt duped.
In my role as head of the transportation committee I organized a huge public meeting at the community center and convinced the mayor to give the residents time to read the plan and propose alternatives. After three months and a lot of hard work, the residents came back with a report citing their very real concerns and proposed some feasible alternatives. The mayor gave the report five minutes of consideration before rejecting it.
Seven months later, the local building and planning committee recognized the same flaws in the plan that the residents and I had spotted months earlier and were prepared to vote against it. The head of the committee, Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, decided that he would not allow the mayor to be embarrassed by a rejection from his committee and took the issue off the agenda at the last minute.
The mayor proceeded to call an emergency meeting of the coalition to convince them to vote in favor of the plan. He spun the objections of the ultra-Orthodox members of the committee as a political move to get the First Station closed on Shabbat. I spoke to my ultra-Orthodox colleagues and found out that nothing could have been further from the truth. The mayor chose to spread hateful rumors about the ultra-Orthodox rather than recognize the plan’s inherent flaws.
The ultra-Orthodox did not hold the mayor to ransom over Shabbat issues, but the mayor went to them one by one and allegedly “bought” their vote. We will never know what he offered them, but within a week, most of the objections were transformed into votes in favor of the plan. My party, Yerushalmim, voted against it and so did Laura Wharton of Meretz. Everyone else, including parties like Hitorerut, which had also expressed concern just a week earlier, capitulated to the political pressure of the mayor.
So what’s next? The plan is currently being heard at the regional committee where the residents will again go in front of the committee and present their objections. In the meantime, we are lobbying for a solution for the Blue Line that could turn out to be a win-win for the neighborhood and the city. A tunnel under Emek Refaim or Mesila Park is a neat solution. The mayor has objected from the beginning to a tunnel for budgetary and perhaps even philosophical reasons.
It is our duty to make him understand that a train on Emek Refaim will ultimately be a lot more expensive to the city, its heritage and most importantly its residents.
I have been criticized by some transportation activists for my decision to object to the Blue Line. My question to them is the following: Is the transportation system here to serve its residents or are the residents here to serve an expensive transportation system? Is the dog wagging the tail or is the tail wagging the dog? We are all at the moment serving the Blue Line, its planners and a mayor who has trouble listening. Aren’t they all supposed to be serving us?
The writer is a city council member and leader of the opposition with the Yerushalmim Party.
Next week, In Jerusalem will present the opposing viewpoint.