Warning: Construction ahead

Will the light rail really be completed on time?

n January 5, 2009, Jerusalemites will finally know if the joke is on us. That morning, the city's NIS 3.2-billion light rail project will either begin operating on schedule and on budget or - as cynics fear - Jerusalem will be crippled with a hugely expensive white elephant akin to Boston's infamous Big Dig. For readers unfamiliar with the New England city, in 1985 the Massachusetts metropolis undertook to excavate a $2.5-billion tunnel beneath the historic downtown, replacing an elevated expressway while updating infrastructure and creating new parkland. Earlier this summer, after more than $12 billion in cost overruns, Boston's long-delayed mega-project was temporarily shut down when a tunnel ceiling panel collapsed, crushing a car and its driver. Jerusalem's many long-suffering commuters may not face a similar debacle, but fume they'll be made freiers (suckers) by feckless transportation bureaucrats. As many have noted, the terminal at Israel's international airport, known as Ben-Gurion 2000, finally opened in 2004. They cite the countless revisions to the ambitious initial phase of the Red Line, which is now set to snake through the city for 13.8 km. beginning at Pisgat Ze'ev in the north, following Highway 1 south to Kikar Tzahal, where it will turn west along pedestrian-only Jaffa Road, curve south over a landmark bridge by the Central Bus Station and then carry along Herzl Boulevard to Yad Vashem. Tellingly, they worry, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) offices are hidden away behind locked doors in the Clal Center - a concrete carbuncle which is arguably the ugliest, least user-friendly office tower in all of Israel. Mass transit officials have done a less than stellar job promoting public understanding of the many traffic interruptions now plaguing Jerusalem, and the LRT Web site (www.rakevetkala-jerusalem.org) has not updated its English page in two years. Hold your horses - or should one say sleek tram carriages - says Shmuel Tsabari, project manager for the LRT, who says he can practically guarantee his baby will be delivered on target, if not earlier, and won't cost a grush more than allocated. Tsabari's reasoning and the ultimate put-down to know-it-alls? The LRT, with its 46 state-of-the-art streetcars, is largely being built abroad by specialized foreign companies which are bound by stiff penalties for any contract violations or delays - and don't share the Levantine mentality of shuwaya, shuwaya (little by little). Known as BOT (build, operate and transfer), the plan is that by transferring responsibility to overseas engineering firms, the privatized LRT will be able to avoid the snafus of government involvement. Under the funding formula, NIS 1.2 billion is coming directly from taxpayers while NIS 2.2-billion is being raised by City Pass, a consortium of French, Italian and Israeli companies that in 1995 received a 30-year concession to build and operate the light rail system. The contract includes a buy-back option after seven years. In a futuristic fantasia worthy of Jules Verne or Theodor Herzl - who in his 1902 epochal work Altneuland (Old-New Country) envisioned a European-style tram network spanning rebuilt Jerusalem - there will be 24 stations with trains manufactured in La Rochelle, France, quietly gliding by every four minutes. Emblematic of the whole complex enterprise and perhaps its most controversial element will be the Bridge of Strings, a 340-meter-long single column suspension bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that promises to become an icon of the Israeli capital akin to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Calatrava's slender curved span will soar above the perpetual traffic jam at the intersection of Jaffa Road and Shazar and Herzl boulevards, rising from near the future train station - which is slated to begin carrying passengers to Modi'in, Ben-Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv in 2009. Tsabari dismisses criticism of the Calatrava Bridge as an extravagant waste conceived by former mayor Ehud Olmert. While a conventional overpass would cost between NIS 60-80 million, in contrast to the NIS 220 million for Calatrava's modernist masterpiece, a more plebian bridge would entail some eight support piers that would result in a concrete warren worthy of the Clal Center. Instead, Calatrava's elegant solution will float on two bases now under construction at the project's east and west ends. "This is a bridge but also a monument," beams Tsabari, after showing an impressive computer animation. Comparing Calatrava's design to a harp or shofar, he notes it will be illuminated at night as a landmark of exquisite beauty. Tourists and Jerusalemites will come to promenade along its pedestrian path separated from the tramway, he insists. And what of opposition from Jerusalem's citizens concerned the ultra-modern design will clash with the historic city's character? Parisians initially hated the Eiffel Tower when it was erected for the 1889 World's Fair. Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas the Younger were among those who protested its construction. How does one go about erecting a 2,600-ton bridge? The bridge's anchor bases will comprise 70 holes drilled to a depth of 25 meters, each with a radius of between 60 and 90 cm., Tsabari explains. Such is the public's misunderstanding of the project - or the LRT's failure to provide information updates - that few people in Jerusalem realize that this drilling job is now almost complete. Beginning in December, City Pass will begin constructing a series of temporary pillars to support the bridge platform. Those 24 metal sheets, currently under fabrication in Padua, Italy, will be transported at night from the Haifa port. Each section weighs 40 tons, and Tsabari notes police may have to close sections of the highway from Sha'ar Hagai to facilitate the huge, slow-moving transports. In January 2007, the mastiff, also being made in Italy, will arrive in three sections of approximately 40 meters each. "We won't close the expressway entirely," promises Tsabari. With the 118-meter high pylon in place, work will then begin on laying the 68 cables that will support the unique suspension bridge. Averaging four to six "strings" per night, Tsabari anticipates somewhat vaguely that this phase will be finished by next summer. "I'm not arbitrarily saying summer. This is a very complex thing," he says. For safety reasons, traffic will not be permitted under the bridge at night during this phase of construction. Cars and buses will have to detour via Givat Shaul or Lifta to reach the city center, he says. Residents of nearby apartment buildings may also be temporarily evacuated during this phase, explains LRT spokesman Shmulik Elgrably. There may be electricity interruptions or difficulty in reaching their homes, he adds. The LRT has appointed Amnon Elian as head of the community team coordinating arrangements as necessitated by developments. "Building the LRT isn't virtual," says Elgrably. "You don't do it on the Internet." With the bridge's 68 cables in place, the temporary ramps and pillars will then be removed, the track bed laid and traffic restored. "There's no question there will be a disturbance to the general public," Tsabari asserts matter-of-factly. "It's like doing a house renovation."