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IN CASE you somehow missed this: The main entrance to Jerusalem was closed to private means of transportation on Sunday..(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
How willing are Israelis to release their hold on the steering wheel?
Jerusalem Gateway Project: “We reckon that around 1,000 vehicles pass through the spot an hour, at peak times – that is if people’s driving habits don’t change.”
A few years back, I remember seeing an apocalyptic headline in one of the country’s leading Hebrew language newspapers that basically declared that no one was going to be able to enter or exit Tel Aviv via the Shalom Junction, near the Azrieli Towers, for a couple of year or so, because of the long-term road works that were about to start there. The article conveyed, in no uncertain terms, that Tel Aviv was facing something akin to shutdown, as millions of cars would clog the area and have to, somehow, crawl their way through the daily gridlock until work on the underpass ended.

That gloomy prophecy did not, in fact, come to pass. It transpired that it was a crass example of downright sensationalist journalism. The question is whether the same will apply to what has just started at the western entrance to Jerusalem, by far the busiest conduit to the city.

Such situations naturally lend themselves to doomsday reportage and, indeed, a couple of days ago, the evening before the closure began, one headline claimed that we could expect “enormous traffic jams at the entrance to Jerusalem.” Another, possibly whimsically and with a touch of national history, suggested that “The Siege Is Returning to Jerusalem.”

Just in case you were away on vacation, or happened to be on the moon, and missed the event, the main entrance to Jerusalem was closed to private means of transportation on Sunday. That is set to be the situation for at least three years, as the Tel Aviv end of the city continues to undergo major renovation and facelift construction works designed to transform the area and, hopefully, have a beneficial effect on the employment situation and, naturally, the municipal coffers.

In view of – to put it diplomatically – the absence of adherence to declared timetables of the Light Rail and the new train route to Tel Aviv, Jerusalemites might be forgiven for doubting the official timeframe of the Jerusalem Gateway project. The Light Rail project came in at around eight times the original budget and overstepped its inauguration date by two and a half years – and not to mention the severe disruption to traffic around town, and even businesses that went under because customers simply couldn’t get to them. Then there’s the new high-speed rail link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which was due to provide a scarcely believable travel time of 28 minutes, but began functioning six months late and still only runs between Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion Airport.

YOEL EVEN, acting head of the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, a municipality arm charged with developing urban infrastructures and conducting public works project, is eager to head any scheduling doubts off at the pass.

“I can say that Moriah is a company that meets its targets. For every project we take on, we meet our deadline, and even complete the work ahead of time. We are a thoroughly professional company, and we mean what we say.”
Even says the proof of the pudding is already evident.

“We began excavating for the underground parking lot four years ago, and we finished that eight months in advance. That is quite an achievement. You can come across unexpected things when you start working, but I think we will be able to make good on all our promises, God willing.”

Yossi Saidov, from the 15 Minutes Public Transport Alliance in Israel, which works to help ensure the provision of user-friendly public transport, is not sure about that. “It’s funny that private projects generally finish on schedule and public transport projects always end way past their deadline,” he observes. “This is a mixture of private and public work, so who knows?”

Even says he is fully aware of the scale of the work involved in the Gateway project, and hopes the work and the end result will offer benefits all round.

“We reckon that around 1,000 vehicles pass through the spot an hour, at peak times – that is if people’s driving habits don’t change.”

The latter is a critical point.

HAVING JERUSALEM Gateway work vehicles and assorted construction materials taking up a large part of the Jerusalem International Convention Center parking lot doesn’t exactly help the situation. (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“You know there are all sorts of small things which can change and have a dramatic effect. You know, we Israelis, you get four people traveling to a meeting and each one will drive there in their own car. You only need those four people to go there in the same car and you’ve already reduced the volume of traffic.”

But, just how willing is the regular Israeli on the road to release their hold on the steering wheel? Even is hopeful that work currently underway on adding the Green Line and Blue Line to the Light Rail network will also help move things along in the desired direction. The Bible has it that we are a stiff-necked people and, perhaps, we need more than a gentle shove to get us to think more efficiently and, it must be said, more environmentally friendly, about how we get from A to B. Even thinks that the current traffic hardships, induced by the new project, may just provide a catalyst for that paradigm shift.

“There is a lot of psychology in this, how people view the situation. At the end of the day, we can all manage the circumstances. Projects of this scale are always challenging, around the world and in Israel, too. But, for example, people can use the Park and Go facility near Mount Herzl – leave their car there and take the Light Rail. We are already working on 60% of the Green Line. Public transport in Jerusalem is going to be really good.”

OF COURSE, only time will tell how things pan out three or four years from now, but Saidov is more worried about the here and now.

“Just this morning I received complaints about buses not stopping because they were so full,” he notes. “Cars can’t use the area so more people want to take buses. There were promises of more buses being provided but, for now, I can’t see that happening.”

Saidov is keenly aware of the shortfalls of the local transport system, but says part of that is down to inefficiency of the powers that be.

“The municipality doesn’t do anything to make sure that private vehicles don’t use public transport lanes,” he states. “In Tel Aviv, they enforce that with cameras and police.”

That can generate more tangible benefits than just goodwill.

“The fines they impose in Tel Aviv bring in more than NIS 1 million a month, but the Jerusalem Municipality doesn’t do anything. There is no value to the bus lane on Agrippas Street because it is full of cars. The municipality say they invest heavily in public transport lanes, but I’m skeptical about that. If you don’t enforce it, there’s no point.”

Presumably, at least for now, with the heavy police presence around the entrance to the city during the early days of the renewal work, public transport will have free rein of the area.

“A city functions well when you have a good public transport system,” Saidov intones. “The entrance to Jerusalem has the bus station, the Yitzhak Navon Train Station and the Light Rail running through it. It is the most public transport-connected area in the country, but it has to be managed properly.”

IT’S NOT that Saidov sees only the dark side of the current inconvenience.

“I welcome the project and I believe it will advance the city to a better future. It will bring jobs, entertainment options and generate income. This is a tough interim period, and we have to get through it.”

When the trying construction period is over, we can all start to reap the benefits. It will cost an estimated NIS 1.4 billion for the work on the 1,300-capacity underground parking lot, an underpass for private vehicles that will run under Shazar Boulevard – leaving the street level thoroughfare exclusively to public transport – and “development of the public space.”

According to the project presentation, the new business, leisure and employment area will incorporate no less than nine tower blocks. Saidov says he has no problem with that.

“You have to build upward, because there simply isn’t enough space.”

When I first visited this country in 1974, quite a few Jerusalemites were up in arms over the recently completed Hilton Hotel – now the Crowne Plaza – behind the ICC Convention Center. One venerable local gent I met at Sam’s falafel place near the bus station wondered, “How could [Jerusalem mayor] Teddy [Kollek] allow such an eyesore to be built here? It changes the whole skyline of the city as you come up the hill [from Tel Aviv].” In between munching their way through their pitot, my fellow falafel guzzlers all nodded in agreement. If he is still around today, I wonder what my interlocutor of 45 years ago would make of the current, and planned, city horizon.

The project stats make for impressive perusal. The project organizers talk about 700,000 sq.m. of construction space, 300,000 sq.m., of which will be devoted to business development, with 60,000 sq.m. set aside for commercial use. Jerusalem’s shortage of hotel accommodation should also be alleviated, with 185,000 sq.m. earmarked for hotels and tourism facilities, with a further 170,000 sq.m. devoted to public buildings and cultural institutions.

MEANWHILE, LIFE goes on, and if the situation on the roads were not bad enough already, having Jerusalem Gateway work vehicles and assorted construction materials taking up a large part of the ICC Center parking lot doesn’t exactly help matters, either.

“The parking lot is currently being used by a lot of our equipment, which causes problems,” Even admits, before quickly moving on to a more optimistic lien of thinking. “This whole quarter is going to be a new business quarter, with hotels and skyscrapers, and parking facilities which the businesses there, themselves, will install. I presume the ICC people will also add more parking places.”

Even logically points out that with the expected quantum improvement in public transport, fewer people will drive to the area and, hence, there will be less need for parking facilities.

“I think that when people see there is efficient public transport available, they will leave their cars at home. When I go the center of town, I use the Light Rail. It’s much faster.”

Even, as one might expect, has a sunny outlook on the project, how we will learn to live with it, and eventually enjoy the final product.

“I think that optimism is what makes things happen. I am certain we will get through it okay. We have to progress, otherwise we will move backward,” he says.

Jerusalem may never be the same. Let’s just hope the gestation period ends as planned, and that we all get through it in one piece.
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