Running rings around us

Is a ring road the solution to improving transportation around Jerusalem?

ring road 298.88 (photo credit: )
ring road 298.88
(photo credit: )
With a rapidly growing population and traffic problems to match, Jerusalem is literally at the center of a plan designed to improve municipal road conditions and residents' ability to move around the city. The ring road, as it is called, will encircle Jerusalem in 35 kilometers of new roads, bridges and tunnels, and is neither a new nor an original idea. Half of the project, designed to loop around the eastern side of the city, has been under discussion for decades, and could potentially serve the same purpose as ring roads in cities ranging from Kuala Lumpur to London. But although advocates insist the ring road will make Jerusalem a wealthier city and a better place to live, proposals for the ring road have also provoked concern about the political, economic and environmental implications of its construction. While virtually everyone agrees that steps must be taken to decrease congestion and accomodate an expanding population, opinions about the road's route - and even the necessity of building it - are starkly divided. While the construction of the ring road on the western side of Jerusalem brings with it a host of questions about urban sprawl and the future of the city's outlying natural landscape, it is east Jerusalem where early building has already taken place. Arab residents of the city fear that the road will connect Jewish neighborhoods and settlements at their expense, and that they will be provided inadequate access to the road while disproportionately suffering from the added noise and pollution it creates. The question looming over everything else, of course, is how the road will affect Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city in future negotiations, and is further underscored by the Israeli security barrier being built through parts of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries as a way to separate from Palestinian areas. What will be the role of a road whose original purpose was to connect them? "If Abu Mazen were the mayor of east Jerusalem, he'd be building a ring road," says Danny Seidemann, one of the legal experts who's monitored the planning of the eastern ring road. That's an unexpected statement coming from Seidemann: until a year and a half ago, the Jerusalem lawyer had represented east Jerusalem Palestinians opposed to the ring road's routing. Seidemann hasn't changed his opinion of the ring road in the intervening period - like most of his clients, he recognizes the road's potential utility in connecting parts of east Jerusalem and making it easier to get from Ramallah, on the city's northeastern side, to Bethlehem in the south. Nevertheless, he understands that the plan for the eastern ring road is flawed and should be altered to serve the residents whose lives will most directly be affected by its construction. "It's a very good idea," Seidemann says of the road, "though under the circumstances it's a little bizarre. There's a crying need to have an interconnectedness between the neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and the West Bank . . . Its effect could be good if done right, but it's being thwarted by the security barrier." The idea of the ring road has been under discussion among Israeli planners and strategists for nearly two decades, and was first sketched onto maps by Ariel Sharon during his tenure as a Likud minister and planner of construction efforts designed to erase Israel's Green Line boundary with the West Bank. A general plan for the road's construction was approved by the Netanyahu government in the mid-1990s, with a more detailed rendering of its route submitted to the district planning council under Ehud Barak's Labor government. Various national councils and municipal bodies have been given responsibility for the plan over the years, and responsibility for its implementation currently sits with the Moriah Development Authority, the body overseeing the planning of the western ring road and arterial roads elsewhere in Jerusalem. Originating in the south near Har Homa, the eastern ring road will run through Tsur Baher, Jebl Mukaber, A-Tur and other Arab neighborhoods before ending up somewhat north of the Arab neighborhood of Isawiya, not far from Mount Scopus. The 20-kilometer road is budgeted at NIS 1.2 billion, according to Itscho Gur, a spokesperson for the Moriah Authority. The road will include a "series of bridges" and three tunnels, as well as a number of secondary roads that will connect the ring road to the neighborhoods through which it runs. Limited construction of parts of the ring road took place in its northern section between 2000 and 2003, and NIS 50 million have already been allocated for further construction to take place this year. Fifty million shekels is, of course, only a small fraction of what the road will ultimately cost, and Gur was unable to specify exactly when the rest of the budget would be allocated to Moriah or when construction on the great majority of the ring road would begin. Part of the delay has been caused by a district planning council decision to give further consideration to the objections of east Jerusalem residents before the project is approved in its entirety. According to Avner Ovadiah, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, the go-ahead has been given for construction on all but one segment of the road. The planning council deemed the section - in the southern half of the ring road - a "hard hit" on local residents, ruling that the plan would need to be rectified before work could begin. Gur, Ovadiah and a spokesperson for the municipality declined to comment on exactly what problems would have been caused by that "hit," but lawyers who worked on the issue said that up to 660 dunams of Palestinian land would have been appropriated by the city in early proposals for the road, which would also have required the demolition of as many as 40 homes. At least 13 homes have been spared, however, following a campaign launched by non-governmental organizations concerned with government policy in east Jerusalem. Bimkom, an organization dealing with human rights and urban development, was among the non-governmental organizations and individuals that came together to fight the original plan. Yael Padan, an architect who volunteers for the group, noted that the informal coalition had objected to specific parts of the plan, not to the road itself, because the master plan had been approved by the district planning council before it was submitted for public scrutiny, and government procedure declares that only objections to specific elements of the plan can be considered after an infrastructure-related project is given the initial go-ahead. Nevertheless, Padan and others said the coalition had achieved a moderate degree of success in convincing planners to alter the design of the road where it runs through the Kidron Valley. The initial plan would have built across land occupied now by 13 private homes, and designers were persuaded to build a bridge that will leave the homes intact. "In many places along the route, there were house demolitions that weren't necessary if [the government] had used more expensive ways of building," she said. In this case, "they can support it vertically rather than by taking more land." The solution is far from perfect, Padan noted - the bridge will now rest directly over many of the houses that were spared - but she expressed tentative appreciation that officials had taken steps to minimize hardships created for local residents by the road's construction. While Seidemann said that he and the Palestinian community organization he had represented were "relatively pleased" with the results of their campaign, he called the experience a "stillborn success" because of ongoing uncertainties about how the road will connect east Jerusalem residents to each other and to Palestinian cities outside Jerusalem municipal boundaries. Bimkom and other organizations criticized the Barak-era version of the construction plan for what they said was an insufficient number of interchanges and ramps that would have made the road accessible to Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem. "If there's a road like this that doesn't link you up," Seidemann said, "it cuts you off. There was a fear that this would be used as a bypass road." Rami Nasrallah, an architect involved in several joint Israeli-Palestinian projects relating to Jerusalem's future, also expressed skepticism about the role the ring road will play in the daily life of Arab residents in surrounding neighborhoods. "For me, this road is more to connect settlements with the north of Jerusalem. This could serve Palestinians, but its first priority is to serve [Jewish] Israelis in the southeast and north of Jerusalem. It connects them in an artificial way, linking them across Palestinian neighborhoods," he said. Gur, the Moriah Authority spokesperson, declined to name the number of on-ramps and interchanges that would provide Palestinian access to the road, but he said that construction plans had been sufficiently modified so that the road would be accessible to all the residents of the areas through which it passes. The road "will make possible movement to different neighborhoods around the city," he wrote in a statement released to In Jerusalem. "The road will also serve the Arab population in adjacent villages and areas." Transportation officials and legal advocates agree that, if that's the case, the eastern ring road has the potential to markedly improve Jerusalem traffic and the quality of life for local residents. Quicker movement around the city would have positive economic consequences for businesses throughout the city, with goods and services provided more quickly and with less congestion in the areas currently servicing private and commercial drivers. But the rationale behind the road's construction has grown confusing to some observers in recent years, as Israel's security barrier goes up within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries according to a logic that appears at odds with that of the ring road. When Ariel Sharon originally mapped out the eastern ring road, the guiding principle was to connect the western side of the city with the eastern half - and to settlements and other Israeli projects in the surrounding areas. The security barrier, by contrast, is going up to achieve precisely the opposite: to restrict and control traffic between the different areas as a way to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks. Officially, city and national officials insist that Israel will always control all of Jerusalem, and that the ring road and the security barrier are not working at cross-purposes. Ovadiah, the transportation ministry official, wrote in an e-mail that "plans for the road correspond with the separation fence," that although the road will run in many places outside the so-called "Jerusalem envelope" protected by the barrier, its construction would nevertheless take place. Though they still worry about the ring road's effect on neighborhoods it is designed to connect, some of those familiar with the project question its utility and whether it will go forward. "Two major projects in east Jerusalem are taking place simultaneously and within yards of each other," Seidemann said. "The east Jerusalem ring road is about connecting parts of the town with each other and to the outside, and the security barrier has the opposite effect. The effect of the ring road is very much jeopardized" by the building of the security barrier. Suggesting that the plan had been at least temporarily "frozen," Padan of Bimkom noted that the route of the ring road "was an old plan from the Oslo Accords. Since then, everything has changed, and this might be why the new road isn't being built. The road is planned almost exactly on the municipal border . . . so I thought it was chosen for political reasons when the Oslo Accords were still relevant. It can't exist with the wall." Asked if she thought the road would eventually be built as it's currently planned, she continued, "I don't think so, and I hope not." Still, she reiterated, the eastern ring road has the potential to benefit nearby residents and the part of the city where it would be located. "It should be built," she said, "but it should be about upgrading all the transport systems in east Jerusalem so that [residents in the immediate vicinity] can benefit. It should be designed for infrastructure and commerce as well. Everything should be developed together."