Incalculable damages

After years of suffering, 13 downtown merchants are suing the parties involved in the light rail.

The light rail project has already caused more negative feelings than one can imagine. “Disaster” and “catastrophe” are just some of the adjectives used to describe one of the biggest projects ever undertaken in the holy city since Herod’s days.
Recently, a group of downtown merchants decided that enough is enough. For fear that the parties involved in the project are trying, once again, to conceal their inability to stand by their schedules, the merchants have sued them all – the municipality, the Transport Ministry, the Treasury, the CityPass company and the Transportation Master Plan.
So far, that is nothing too unexpected. After 12 years of waiting, and with the light rail opening date now set for 2011, it is not so surprising to see that the merchants have lost their patience. According to the details provided by attorney Ya’acov Pink and his son and associate, Asaf Pink, it appears that the events that led to that lawsuit, or at least part of them, would easily fit into some kind of theater of the absurd. Some of the merchants who were asked about the situation had trouble smiling – perhaps because they had reason to believe that the joke was on them.
On July 30, 2009, a request to obtain details about the schedule of the light rail work was submitted to the relevant public institutions on behalf of 13 merchants whose shops are located on Jaffa Road between the Generali Building and Kikar Zion. The request was submitted under the rule of “freedom of information,” which is ensured by the law. The questions were rather simple,  such as what is written in the statement of work, which is required according to the rules of any project, as well as a detailed schedule of the progress of the work in general and on Jaffa Road in particular.
The first response came from Kikar Safra, whose answer was astonishing: “This information is no longer in our hands, as anything concerning the light rail project has been handed over to the Transportation Master Plan.”
As for the Treasury, could it be that freedom of information is so disregarded there that it was the reason that the request had been lost? 
“After four months,” recalls Pink, “we called them back, gently reminding them that according to the law, they originally had 30 days to answer. The Treasury decided to send the request to CityPass which, being a private body, has no obligation to respond unless one has the means to convince them that they can be considered as a third party in a public project, and then the law recommends that they answer.
CityPass took the merchants and their attorney by surprise and asked for an additional period of 21 days to give an answer, with the full support of the Transportation Ministry.
After 21 days Pink was requested to go to the offices of the Transportation Master Plan to see the documents for himself.
“I looked desperately into a huge mass of documents for the information we needed, the famous statement of work,” Pink told In Jerusalem, “but there was no trace of it whatsoever.”
The merchants’ case is a painful one. Since 1998 they have had to suffer many difficulties: the intifada, the economic crisis, the roadworks, the indifference of the authorities to their tremendous losses. At the same time their taxes, rent and expenses have increased.
Asked if they ever received any support for their case, one of the merchants admitted that the municipality was trying to help – by staging such activities as popular cultural events in the area to attract potential customers.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. It’s just that the whole place is so chaotic and dirty that it just doesn’t work. Who wants to spend their leisure time in an area that looks like the aftermath of a bombing?”
In response, Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Transportation Master Plan, says: “The issue of the schedule is currently in the process of arbitration between CityPass and the government, and we will implement any decision made by this forum.”
For its part, the municipality claims it has been trying to revive the city center. “Since becoming mayor, Nir Barkat has tried to speed up the [light rail] project while offering the merchants various compensations in taxes and payments, as well as organizing happenings and events to bring more potential customers to the location.”
In addition, on Wednesday (after press time), the District Court will hear the merchants’ request for compensation for loss of revenue. The merchants are seeking an order to CityPass to work three shifts a day as well as NIS 5.3 million in damages.
CityPass spokesman Gil Singer responds to the merchants’ request for transparency and their suit against the involved parties:
“CityPass operates completely transparently and is not hiding anythingfrom the business owners or the public. Like any other legal matter,the suit against the parties involved (The Finance and Transportationministries, the municipality, the Transportation Master Plan andCityPass) will be decided in court,” he says.
“Arbitration isongoing between the government and [CityPass]. An expert engineerappointed by the arbiters with the consent of both sides has placedmost of the accountability for the project on the state and has set anew date of completion for the project [April 2011]... We welcome thisdecision, which proves what CityPass has been claiming for a long time,and we hope that now cooperation between the parties can be renewed andthe project can be advanced for the welfare of Jerusalem residents.”