Over our heads

How did the J'lem bridge of string's price changed from NIS 70m to NIS 250m?

bridgy 88 (photo credit: )
bridgy 88
(photo credit: )
Deputy mayor and finance committee head Eli Simhayoff's recent announcement that the municipality will not cover the additional costs for the construction of the Bridge of Strings at the city's western entrance has added fuel to an already controversial project. In response to the request for an additional NIS 30 million by Moriah, the municipal company erecting the bridge, the Transportation Ministry has asked that the municipality, as outlined in an earlier agreement, cover 80 percent of the expense. According to the agreement, which was initiated by then-municipal director-general Eitan Meir, the burden for any expenses beyond the bridge's NIS 220m. budget would largely fall to the municipality if those expenses were not incurred by the ministry. But Simhayoff is refusing to uphold the deal, charging that Moriah and not the municipality is to blame for the budget blunder. "As far as I'm concerned, the Bridge of Strings can turn into a white elephant and never be completed," Simhayoff told In Jerusalem earlier this week. He added that he would not allow the Finance Committee to even consider covering Moriah's funding request. "Over my dead body... before any additional money is released [to Moriah] at the expense of the taxpayers," he said. "I don't understand why Moriah, which is responsible for the project, expects us to pay for their mishaps." Meir agrees. The stipulations of the deal don't apply in this case, he says, adding that Moriah could have prevented such a situation. "It was its duty to see that the construction would be completed on time and within the limits of the budget." But city comptroller Shlomit Rubin, in her report last year, said that Meir had no authority to draft the deal with the ministry in the first place, that he did so without the city council's approval and that therefore the agreement did not hold water. "I personally believe this additional sum should come from the Moriah budget," she wrote in the report. "The Bridge of Strings at the entrance to the city is progressing as planned and at a satisfactory pace," Moriah director-general Yehiel Lavi responds. The final cost of the bridge is NIS 245m., Moriah spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef wrote in a statement. "The bridge's construction is meant to be completed in May, when it will be inaugurated in an impressive ceremony as befits the monument and Israel's capital. The bridge's Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, has been invited to the event." Meanwhile, preparations for the bridge's ribbon-cutting ceremony, allotted NIS 2m. and scheduled for May 26, are still under way, and the overall cost of the bridge, which Rubin also criticized in her report, is more than NIS 250m., up from NIS 70m. for the original, more modest, plan. How did we get here? DURING HIS first term as mayor in 1994, Ehud Olmert understood that he had to deliver something grandiose to the government to secure the large budget he needed to realize his plans for Jerusalem. Already then, the first issue at stake was a mass transit system solution for the capital, whose population was expected to top one million within 30 years. At the time, Begin Highway was the city's major transportation project, but it was clear that it was only the first in a series of massive infrastructure initiatives needed in Jerusalem. By the end of 1995, traffic congestion in the city was at its highest level and the downtown area in particular had become a crowded, noisy and polluted mess. Pedestrians, merchants and even tourists took their business elsewhere, in particular to the newly opened Malha mall, creating a severe financial crisis in the city center. Something had to be done, and the light rail, which was first proposed by Theodor Herzl in 1902 in his book Altneuland (The Old New Land) as a way of modernizing the burgeoning city, took its place on the city agenda as a serious option. "There were other options to deal with the traffic problems of the capital, but Olmert decided to go for the light rail - which later led to the decision to build the Bridge of Strings - among other reasons because it was the only project that could bring in money from the government," recalls light-rail project spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli. "This project - the light rail and the bridge - have brought over NIS 2.5 billion to the city, which had never before seen such generous governmental allocations," he adds. BY THE time the light rail project was adopted in mid-1995, it became clear that passage from Jaffa Road to Sderot Herzl would necessitate a unique solution to a complex engineering problem in the area - one that wouldn't disturb the traffic or the topography of the area. "We had to decide: Do we want the turn from Jaffa Road to Sderot Herzl to originate from the Mahaneh Yehuda market, thus causing a major change in the planning of the city and the [light rail] project? Or shall we seek a less dramatic solution, in this case, perhaps a bridge?" then-city engineer Uri Sheetrit said at a press conference in March 2003 presenting renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and his design for the bridge. Calatrava then went on to explain how the Book of Psalms and the figure of King David had inspired the suspension bridge design's lyre-like appearance. At the time, the municipality was NIS 600m. in deficit, but instead of inviting tough questions about the budget for the proposed bridge - one of 12 solutions considered - the press conference turned into a convivial cultural gathering. "What happened is that while they were trying to find a technical solution for a real engineering problem, these people were carried away by Uri Sheetrit to go for a very ambitious and prestigious project," recalls city councilor and comptroller committee head Pepe Allalu (Meretz). "First of all, the bridge was one option among other engineering solutions proposed. They decided to go for the bridge and to drop all the other options - fine. But then we realized that it was not just a bridge for the light rail, it became an artistic project," he continues. "We discovered one morning that the municipality - in this case the city engineer dragging after him all the high echelons of Kikar Safra - decided to give the city a monument! "I am not against monuments, and Santiago Calatrava is of course very highly esteemed and a world-renowned architect, but since when are the city engineer and the Transport Ministry fit to decide on a monument for the capital? Don't we have a Culture Ministry? Couldn't we have a state committee of artists and architects to decide which kind of monument the capital of the State of Israel deserves?" "People will always criticize, I've gotten used to it, it just doesn't bother me anymore," Meir says in response. Meir, who last year left Kikar Safra after 13 years of service, four and a half of them as municipal director-general, is considered the major force behind the mass transit system. On more than one occasion he has said that the project was one of the peaks of his career. "It's true that it [the idea for the bridge] all started with an engineering issue," he recalls, "but I wish to clarify what kind of engineering problem it was, and what were the exact reasons why we finally opted for this kind of bridge. "The route of the light rail at the junction between Jaffa Road and Sderot Herzl didn't allow us anything other than an above-ground solution. Less than 14 m. from there is a tunnel that leads directly from Road One to the northern parts of the city. [As a result] no one could seriously propose any solution that would also be underground so close to this tunnel. "But there was another consideration," adds Meir. "I believe that people who use public transportation shouldn't be punished [with lackluster transportation options]. On the contrary, I believed at the time, and today even more so, that those who stick to their private cars are the ones who should be penalized if not at least discouraged. "So we had to find a solution that would fit this frame of mind. This doesn't only apply for the Calatrava Bridge; it was also the frame of mind behind the transportation solutions we decided upon for Kikar Tzahal facing Jaffa Gate: Public transportation above ground, private cars underground. In considering a solution for linking the Central Bus Station to Sderot Herzl, "The most natural one was of course a bridge for public transportation - in this case our new light rail - that would allow passengers to enjoy a superb view, and send private cars underground, to use the tunnel to the north," explains Meir. "It's true that the first proposal was for a concrete bridge with heavy pillars on which the light rail would cross the junction," he says. "As far as I remember, the cost [for such a bridge] was about NIS 70m." (In Jerusalem had previously been told the cost was initially estimated at NIS 420,000, a figure that was provided by a reliable source.) The Calatrava Bridge, on the other hand, "will cost about NIS 250m.," he continues. "Among other reasons, because the Moriah municipal company charged with its construction didn't meet the timetable we set." On the other hand, "I am ready to bet any sum that had we gone for the first bridge proposal, we would have alienated [the media and residents]," Meir says. "I can imagine the criticism we would have received: How could we bring that ugliness to the capital, why didn't we try adding some beauty to the new transportation infrastructure, etc. Believe me, I know all the arguments by heart!" "We understood that from this technical situation on the ground, we had in fact a tremendous and unique opportunity to create something new, something that would fit our concept: a modern means of transportation for a modern city," explains Meir. "We wanted to say with that bridge that Jerusalem is not only a historical and ancient city symbolized by walls and religious monuments, but also a city that looks to the modern future. And the best part of this is that we convinced the Finance and Transportation ministries to share our vision and finance this huge project." "I SINCERELY believe that it was a good decision," says preservationist and architect David Kroyanker. "The idea to use this need for the bridge to introduce a modern aspect to the city, I would say it was the 'raison d'etre' of this specific bridge. "I know that right from the beginning the reactions were very much against it [Calatrava Bridge] because of its location more than because of its cost," adds Kroyanker. "The surrounding area is in poor condition, [eliciting] remarks like 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,' and even worse things. But the truth is that once the bridge was approved, a huge and interesting plan to improve and embellish the entrance to the city from the west was approved, and I can tell you that once it's accomplished, it will indeed give the Calatrava Bridge its appropriate setting." "The city of Jerusalem is and has always been connected to history, ancient times and religious monuments," adds Meir. "I cannot and do not wish to change these symbols. I just think that if we want to convey a message of a city renewing itself, a city that is relevant and part of the modern future, this bridge is the best tool. "In other words, the city is a religious and historic symbol and its monuments are all religious, and here we had an opportunity to propose a monument for the western part of the city, modern Jerusalem, that can be considered as an alternative," he continues. "All these goals could be achieved with this beautiful bridge, which immediately connects Jerusalem with some of the most famous locations in the world, where Calatrava has built other beautiful bridges," he adds. "I am pleased to hear that Meir admits that this [Calatrava Bridge] is not merely a technical solution to a technical engineering problem but a monument with deep meaning and intention," says Allalu sarcastically. "Please do not misunderstand me," says Allalu, who opposed the project right from the start. "I am not against a monument, especially when we're talking here about a modern, non-religious or historic monument that cannot turn into a source of religious or political tension. What I am opposed to is the way this whole project was conducted. "I know that public issues and processes are not our country's strength, but still, I expected that such a huge and costly project would warrant a public and transparent process of approval - and it was everything but that," he says. "In other words, I say that from the moment those in responsible positions - in this case Eitan Meir and Uri Sheetrit - understood this was more than a bridge, they should have come to the city council and put it on the table. "The proper way [of deciding on the bridge's design] would have been to propose a tender, open to local and foreign architects, with a committee of field experts to supervise the process that would be directed by the Culture Ministry," says Allalu. "Consider this: A monument of this magnitude in the capital of the state chosen by the Transportation Ministry? What is their connection to art and architecture?" "Of course, people will say that once we realized that it was going to be more than just another bridge, we should have undertaken another process," Meir responds. "It's possible, but I know what we had at stake at that particular moment: We had a rare occasion where the government was ready to give us the money for that particular project. I thought then, that I had no right to jeopardize this wonderful and perhaps unique situation. "You're asking me if we could have opened it to a national or even an international architects' competition? Yes we could have, but I thought that we had no time to waste," he says. "I believe that there are sometimes situations in the public sector where someone has to make a decision and time is of the essence," explains Meir. "I believe it was one of those situations and I am totally at peace with myself [about the decision]." WHEN ASKED to comment, Sheetrit, who secured Calatrava for the bridge's design, would only say that, "I am no longer an employee of the Jerusalem municipality and thus I do not owe any answers to anyone," adding, "I did what in my opinion was the best for Jerusalem. I know that people gossip and criticize and I wish them all the best. I am finished with this whole issue; I am far beyond all this." In the protocol presented to the Regional Planning Committee when the Calatrava Bridge was discussed, Sheetrit said: "Jerusalem is surrounded by hills - from the north, from the east and from the south. They are all connected to the history and here we have the main entrance to the city from the west, from the rest of the country. And there is nothing there, it is neglected, ugly, underdeveloped... I have already said that I am willing to give additional building rights in that area to embellish it, it's important… If we build this bridge there, we will complete the sight of high structures - whether hills, historic structures or high buildings around the city itself and that's what we should do." One municipal employee recalls Sheetrit saying after the committee meeting: "I will not allow anyone to stick an ugly, concrete, insignificant bridge right at the entrance of the city, not in my time." Ultimately, though, it was Olmert who decided on the string suspension-bridge, of the three design options that Calatrava proposed. "Olmert was also the one who went personally to the government and convinced the Finance Ministry to fund this project. Without him, it wouldn't have been achieved," says Elgrabli.