Capital merchants struggle with endless light rail delays

Mahaneh Yehuda vendors want Transportation Ministry to change Agrippas from two-way street back to one-way street.

light rail 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
light rail 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As the starting date for the light rail in Jerusalem recedes further into the distance, pushed back from August until “after the holidays,” bus passengers and merchants along congested Rehov Agrippas downtown are coming to terms with the fact that the temporary difficulties they face there are going to last much longer than anticipated.
The official start date for the train is still August 15, as CityPass has not requested any extensions. Transportation officials, however, are certain that the train will be ready no earlier than mid-October, though rumors have stretched the date back to as far as January.
Merchants at the Mahaneh Yehuda market are fighting a new battle with the Transportation Ministry in an effort to change Agrippas from a two-way street back to a one-way street, rerouting all the buses down Rehov Bezalel.
Bibi Roei, the owner of TevaNet on Agrippas, is one of the merchants warning that a tragedy is just around the corner if the road stays a two-way street.
“I work here 15 hours a day, I know this area better than the municipality or any policeman,” Roei said on Tuesday. “[Transportation officials] told me that the traffic needs to be ‘symmetrical.’ Symmetrical? That’s an Ashkenazi word. What we need is not to live under the threat of accidents!”
Other merchants warned of difficulties with ambulances reaching the area, or of the economic hit their businesses have taken now that private cars are banned from many downtown streets.
Avraham Levy, who has owned a fruit stand in the shuk for 32 years and served on the merchant’s committee for 25, said the light rail would make a meaningful impact on the city only if there was more than one line.
“But if this line took 10 years to build, the rest will take another 50. There’s no way this will happen in our lifetime,” he said.
The merchants’ request for a one-way street would mean that private cars could drive along Agrippas during the day. They are currently banned from Agrippas from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“I want the mayor to come and see what it’s like here. No one in the municipality uses public transport,” said Meira, a 36-year-old Katamon resident waiting for the bus on Rehov Agrippas. She noted that the light rail would not make access to her neighborhood any easier.
“We’re so used to delays that people are already apathetic,” said Sara Kingslinger, a Jerusalem resident who regularly shops at the shuk. She called Agrippas the “Achilles’ heel” of the city, bearing the brunt of the growing pains of the light rail.
Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, a partnership between the municipality and the Transportation Ministry, noted that when the light rail starts, 50 bus routes will immediately change throughout the city and traffic on Agrippas will be significantly reduced. He added that he had not heard of the merchants’ new campaign to turn Agrippas back into a one-way street.
“We have a regular dialogue with the residents and the shuk committee. There are good solutions to private cars that want to get to the shuk,” he said, noting the parking garages in the Clal Building and in Rehov Kiah.
The main reason that the start date continues to be pushed off is traffic lights. After years of arguments, the light rail finally won “preference” at intersections, meaning the trains will get a green light as they approach an intersection, and cars will have to wait.
But CityPass, the company tasked with running the trains and the operating system, still has to program nearly 100 traffic lights and embed 50 sensors along the light rail tracks that will trigger the traffic lights to change. They have embedded just four of the 50 sensors so far.
Last week, the Knesset Economics Committee took CityPass to task for failing to implement the traffic light programming and sensors at a satisfactory pace. In the meeting, CityPass officials blamed the state for requiring them to contract out the programming to a third company, from France, which has not made much progress.