City vows to speed up construction on J'lem light rail

New deadline will see Jaffa Road work finish by end of '09, but merchants say sick of unkept promises.

light rail construction 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
light rail construction 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The light rail infrastructure work under way on Jerusalem's main downtown artery will be completed by the end of the year, the head of the Citi-Pass conglomerate said Tuesday. Citi-Pass director-general Yair Naveh pledged on Tuesday to complete the work on the capital's Jaffa Road by the end of 2009. But residents said they were sick of unkept promises. "Shame shame," one merchant shouted out as Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz toured the mostly blocked street. "They are only working because the mayor is here," said another. The international group building the repeatedly delayed light rail system faces mounting public and municipal pressure to speed up work on Jaffa Road. The decision comes a month after longtime project opponent Barkat took office. The municipality under his leadership is taking a much more hands-on approach to the issue. "There is no doubt that the public is suffering immensely because of this project," Barkat said. "You can imagine that I am very dissatisfied with the pace of the work." Barkat said during the mayoral campaign that he would "examine better alternatives" to the light rail system, including environmentally friendly buses, and would seek a fundamental discussion with government officials to find the best solution to the city's transportation needs, over and beyond speeding up the infrastructure work on project. But Mofaz clarified Tuesday that there was no stopping the light rail project at this late stage, even though it is years behind schedule. "Under the present situation, we need to finish this," he said. At the same time, Mofaz said that everything must be done to expedite the work, and to reduce the hardships residents are facing. "We need to minimize as much as possible the damage and suffering of the public," he said. The rail is now scheduled to begin running in September 2010. "It cannot be that the city center is paralyzed for years because of this work," said Shimon Darwish, head of the workers' committee at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, located south of Jaffa Road. "This kind of thing doesn't happen anywhere else in the world." The solution is to work on the site 24 hours a day, Darwish said. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss recently found that the government incorrectly estimated the public sector's investment in the project, which has soared from NIS 500 million in 2000 to NIS 1.3 billion as of the end of 2007. The project is meant to ease traffic congestion, improve access and reduce pollution downtown. But in the meantime, it has created a traffic nightmare and turned parts of the city into a big, dusty construction site. The 14-km. inaugural "Red Line" will run from the northern neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl via the city center, with 23 stops along the way. Barkat could nix the plans for additional lines. Two months before November's municipal election, the city acknowledged severe disruptions, postponements and general mismanagement in construction, and blamed Citi-Pass. The allegations, outlined by the city in a letter to the Finance Ministry, cite the lack of an updated stage-by-stage work plan, limited working hours, and insufficient manpower and construction equipment. Last year, merchants said the infrastructure work on Jaffa Road was destroying their businesses. City-Pass placed the blame on the municipality, saying the city delayed issuing building permits for many months.