Rejecting its own advice

The city commissioned and paid for a study of the proposed traffic changes in Baka - and ignored its recommendations.

The recent rejection of a city-commissioned study of proposed traffic changes in Baka has residents riled once again, with an emergency meeting scheduled for August 27 at the Baka Community Center to discuss the latest developments. The study - carried out by Dagesh Engineering, an independent Ramat Gan traffic planning firm - was contracted and paid for by the municipality at the behest of the Greater Baka Community Administration. The request for the study followed protests that included a petition signed by more than 600 residents and store owners, and a stormy demonstration which briefly blocked traffic on Derech Beit Lehem. Local residents claim the city plan for new traffic patterns on Derech Beit Lehem and adjoining streets will turn the narrow, two-lane heart of their neighborhood into a traffic-clogged, noisy thoroughfare for private cars traveling from southeast Jerusalem into the center of town. "The municipality needs to make some courageous decisions [regarding traffic patterns] and these should be made on the level of the mayor and the city engineer and not the Transportation Department," says Shalom Kwaller, head of the Greater Baka Community Administration. The traffic plan, which is part of municipal efforts to bolster public transportation and limit private vehicles driving downtown, aims to divert northbound private cars heading for the center of town from Derech Hebron, the main north/south artery, to Derech Beit Lehem. Private vehicles will no longer be allowed to turn left at Kikar Navon onto Rehov David Remez. Instead, they will be funneled onto Derech Beit Lehem, first from Rehov Miriam Hahashmonait, and at a later stage from Rehov Yehuda as well. In addition, the municipality intends to change the direction of several Baka streets intersecting Derech Beit Lehem, including Yehuda, Esther Hamalka and Yiftah, as well as install four traffic lights along Derech Beit Lehem between Rehov Yehuda and Rehov Emek Refaim (Liberty Bell Garden) to expedite traffic flow. The light at Emek Refaim is already up and working. Residents claim the volume of traffic during peak morning rush hour will increase from around 1,000 vehicles an hour to some 2,500, creating a traffic nightmare for all of southeastern Jerusalem. The Dagesh Engineering study proposed three alternatives to the city's current plan. The first involves widening the intersection at Derech Hebron and Rehov David Remez by adding an additional lane. This would enable a special public transportation lane and eliminate the current public transportation bottleneck. The second calls for creating a major road through the old railroad yards, which are slated for development. And the third proposes a private vehicle bridge from Derech Hebron to Rehov Emek Refaim in place of the current pedestrian bridge by the Cinematheque. However, the alternatives have not been fully explored with respect to feasibility: The road widening at David Remez may not be physically possible; the bridge may conflict with the Old City's visual basin; and the railroad yard road, while a good solution, would probably take seven to eight years to implement. That a consultant came up with these alternatives "shows that there are other solutions to the one proposed by the city," says Meretz city councilor Pepe Alalu. "If the municipality and the consultant would sit together, I am sure they can find even more alternatives. It is a mistake for either side [residents or the municipality] to be stubborn. A compromise must be found. There is no other way to solve this." The municipality wrote in response: "For the past two years, the Jerusalem Municipality has been discussing traffic arrangements in the area with the community administration and, at its request, the municipality even financed a traffic consultant to get an additional opinion. Meetings were held on all levels involving the municipal director-general, the head of the Transportation Department and the transportation engineers for the area, as well as city councilor Alalu, who attended on behalf of the community administration. "In the meeting held two weeks ago, the consultant presented a draft report with alternatives. The consultant was asked to present a final report on the subject after hearing the comments of the community administration and the residents, and only after receiving these comments, will the municipality decide its position." "The situation is a result of lack of foresight, long-term planning and will," says Baka resident Jonathan Kalman "Public transportation is important but it should not dictate urban planning. Shaving five minutes off bus time is not justification for destroying an entire neighborhood. "We are a historic area. Any sane, normal planning department would be working on how to get traffic out of our area, not increasing it twofold. It is beyond Chelm - it is disgusting." To get involved in the neighborhood struggle contact: [email protected]