Israel Jerusalem Light Rail

When Irritation Inhibits Progress

» Jerusalem has delayed its tramway project repeatedly over the past several years, leaving much of the city center torn up, with no relief in sight. The situation has severely damaged support for further transportation projects in this congested metropolis.

After two days in Jerusalem, I’ve never seen a group of people so annoyed at the prospect of getting a brand-new light rail system.

You’d think that they’d be excited about traveling more quickly in comfort through what has become a notoriously congested city, bringing reliable commutes to a place whose citizens have only had access to buses up to now — despite a large and growing population. Light rail’s potential as a big development generator seems hard to resist, especially since some of the city’s close-in areas have suffered from increasing competition from other neighborhoods in retail sales.

But the corporate entity building and eventually planning to run the system has managed to make every mistake in the book since it was first awarded the contract. It has turned what should have been an exciting improvement for this ancient city into a nightmare for many, and the result seems likely to be a popular resistance to future efforts to do the same — at least considering what I’ve been hearing. The lesson is clear: When investing in new transit infrastructure, cities must do it right or they’ll lose out in the long term.

When Jerusalem’s light rail program was first announced in 2002, it was to have eight lines completed by 2020 and act to bring the entire metropolis within reach by easy public transportation. But that broad vision has quickly been whittled down to a $700 million, 8.6-mile line with 23 stations that will link south Jerusalem with several occupied territories in East Jerusalem, via the downtown and the Old City.

The project was initially supposed to be completed in 2006, then delayed until 2009, then 2010, and now supposedly April of next year. All track has been laid as of last month, but based on my examination, most stations are merely shells; no catenary wire has been strung in the central areas.

CityPass, the private group that won the 30-year build/operate/transfer contract from the city, has been a poor manager of the project for a number of reasons. For one, it underestimated investment costs and did little to incorporate the community in the planning and decision-making process. Second, it undertook construction along the entire route of the line at the same time, working very slowly. Finally, it blasted full-steam ahead on a route that unmistakably crosses from Israeli Jerusalem, past the Green Line, towards a Jewish settlement (Pisgat Za’ev) in territory that is internationally assumed to be part of a future Palestinian state. This fact has resulted in a number of boycott and protest attempts against vehicle constructor Alstom and operator Veolia (the latter of which bowed out in 2009 after losing contracts because of its involvement here).

The potential for terrorism — initially a major concern after a spate of bus bombings in the early 2000s — is the least of the city’s problems.

Walking along Jaffa Road in central Jerusalem makes evident the ill effect of these mistakes. Four years after construction began, the street is a mess: dust is everywhere; fences and other construction waste are strewn about; many of the tracks have been recovered by asphalt for car and bus use as a temporary measure before rail service begins. In some places, brand new right-of-way has become so disfigured that it looks like unearthed ancient artifact. The contractor made the foolhardy decision to do the utility work for the entire line, then do the track work for the entire line, then do the catenary work, instead of dividing the work geographically; this led to the current agonizing state of constant construction along the whole route. Stores along the affected streets have been unable to conduct business normally.

These difficulties were evident two years ago, when now-Mayor Nir Barkat ran a campaign in opposition to the manner in which the light rail was being constructed. Last year, he claimed to be considering giving up on the project all together and replacing it with bus rapid transit lines, though a more recent transportation plan for the city advocates extending it a bit and reinforcing it with one BRT route.

It’s too bad that the public sentiment has gathered so strongly against the project, though. The traffic here is terrible, and there is little room for any major road expansion; a subway would likely expose so many centuries-old objects as to make construction untenable (see Rome). In other words, the surface-running light rail concept makes good sense for Jerusalem. Moreover, ignoring the problematic route north into East Jerusalem, the central city segment seems pretty well positioned along the historic Jaffa Road.

But the advantages of this new transit system are for now unknown to the residents of this city, who just want the building to come to an end. Even if the line operates successfully beginning next year, the memory of the pain it caused on the Jerusalem’s fabric won’t be forgotten in a day, which means that future transit projects of a similar nature will encounter huge protest. The eight lines envisioned less than ten years ago are likely a distant fantasy. You can’t irritate an entire city and expect to repeat the same experience five years later.

The whole situation evokes the construction of Vancouver’s Canada Line, which opened last year. That mostly underground and automatized light metro produced enormous problems for the businesses along Cambie Street, under which trains now run; the cut-and-cover construction of the line was very disruptive. Fears of similar problems along the city’s Broadway from locals may prevent the creation of a similar underground route there, no matter the benefits.

Fortunately, the mayoral administration in Jerusalem seems to recognize the problems with the program. In the Jerusalem Post, Transportation Master Plan director Nadav Meroz was recently quoted as saying that any future project would be built in geographical segments, rather than all at the same time. “This mayor is aware of the difficulties we encountered from the public during construction and is adamant about receiving the public’s feedback before work commences,” he also said. In addition, the mayor is convinced that the use of a public-private partnership scheme increased costs and reduced the efficiency of the line’s construction; future infrastructure building will be managed by the city.

But it might be too late. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Image above: Alstom Citadis Light Rail trains waiting to be used in Jerusalem, from Flickr user RahelSharon (cc)

Israel Light Rail

Could Jerusalem Light Rail be a Train to Peace?

Arabs, already benefiting from rising land values around line under construction, clamor for more — including an extension into Palestine

Jerusalem’s almost-completed first phase of its new light rail system has generated considerable controversy — so much so that Mayor Nir Barkat has threatened replacing future extensions with bus rapid transit. The first 14-km project, which is expected to be completed next year, will extend through much of the metropolis, directly next to the Old City, and north past the 1949 Armistice Agreement “Green” Line towards Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. These areas are on the Israeli side of the controversial West Bank Wall, even though they’re within the theoretically Palestinian zone.

Al Bawaba reports that Arabs living in Israeli territory — that is, non-Jews living in Israel — see the light rail’s construction as highly advantageous, and want its expansion further north into the West Bank. Already, rent prices for commercial storefronts along the route have increased by an astonishing ten times in anticipation of the rail system’s opening. The system is expected to make getting around the congested capital city far easier and unsurprisingly is projected to attract thousands of commuters, which is the obvious explanation for the sudden rise in property value.

Could the system be extended north to Ramallah, in truly Palestinian territory, as some of those interviewed for Al Bawaba’s article suggest? After all, shouldn’t the seriously impoverished West Bank be able to take advantage of some of the same positive economic effects that come with a new light rail system?

The obstacles are huge. Ramallah sits on the other side of the West Bank Wall, meaning the operation of a light rail line there would require the lifting of border checkpoints that today are required for people passing from one side of the barrier to the other. For those security facilities to be eliminated, Israel would have to be assured of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, something that neither side has been able to make possible… ever.

It’s a pipe dream, in other words, very unlikely in the next few decades.

The excitement over the possibilities for a new transit line suggest that Jerusalem’s line will be quite effective in transforming the daily habits of Israelis, decreasing commuting times and expanding connections between neighborhoods that have kept segregated for decades. It will be nice to watch Jews and Arabs commuting together, between Arab villages and Jewish towns, in modern rail vehicles. It will be yet another symbol of the ability of two peoples to live their lives in close proximity with one another.

An extension to Ramallah will never be allowed by the existing Israeli government, but a future in which conflict between these two states has been abandoned is possible and acheivable. When that day comes, transit can play an important part in making a working connection between the two happen.

Bay Area Israel

Jerusalem Likely to Abandon Plans for More Light Rail Lines

Mayor Nir Barkat sees their cost as the primary problem and envisions BRT

The Jerusalem Post reports that new Mayor Nir Barkat will cancel the light rail program envisioned for Israel’s capital after the completion of the two initial lines currently under construction. Building the line has caused major headaches in the city core, and Mr. Barkat’s election win last year was in part due to his opposition to the continuation of the project, which would include five more lines. The two lines being built today, however, have been sped up since Mr. Barkat took office and will be completed by 2010 as I reported previously.

The mayor’s solution is bus rapid transit, because the buses would be “a fifth of the price and much easier to deploy” than light rail. “I cannot sign on it yet, but most likely those routes will be BRTs and not trains. [They are] much faster to deploy and they provide practically very similar, if not the same [results]. We are now working on those plans and I believe that with new, fresh thinking we could probably converge on a network that will serve the city faster, easier and cheaper,” said Mr. Barkat to the Post.

What’s unfortunate about the mayor’s opinion is that it is far from a reflection of reality. It’s true that bus rapid transit can be cheaper, but only when it provides significantly lower levels of service. In other words, you can label a bus “BRT” and it won’t cost any more than a traditional bus, but it won’t be rapid. A true “BRT,” with similar levels of service that light rail can provide – in terms of capacity, speed, and comfort – would cost just as much to implement because it would need dedicated lanes completely separated from automobiles, and special, expensive vehicles.

What Mr. Barkat is really saying is that he simply doesn’t want to invest as much of his city’s funds in transit.

But consider this: Jerusalem, with a population of 750,000 spread out over an area of 48 square miles, is virtually identical in form to San Francisco, with a population of 800,000 on a peninsula 47 square miles large. And while the former city has two light rail lines under construction, the latter has a heavy rail line serving its suburbs (BART), and a large network of light rail serving much of the city (Muni Metro). Like Jerusalem, San Francisco has been resorting recently to “cheaper” BRT on the important Geary and Van Ness corridors, using the argument that BRT allows it to serve more people for less money. But the heavy use of BART and Muni suggest that rail can attract higher ridership and provide better service; San Francisco’s high rate of non-automobile commuting attests to the city’s success in providing good transit through rail. Jerusalem should consider that comparison before jumping for underperforming BRT.

High-Speed Rail Israel Midwest High-Speed Rail Norfolk

Midwest HSR News; Jerusalem and Virginia Beach LRT

Midwest High-Speed Rail Has Many Backers for Stimulus Funds in Wisconsin, but Controversy Abounds in Minnesota

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle wants to see federal stimulus money used for the Midwest High-Speed Rail program. Meeting in Milwaukee, the Governor suggested that a line would run from Chicago to Minneapolis, through Milwaukee and Madison, with a potential extension to Green Bay. Mr. Doyle seems to know a little something about transportation, eschewing the typical superficial arguments to point out that all forms of transportation are subsidized by the government, so a public investment in rail isn’t somehow inappropriate:

Just as we heavily subsidize our road transportation system, we subsidize heavily our air transportation system. I don’t think people should say rail is somehow not subject to subsidy when the others are.

We’re obviously happy to hear such clear language from a Governor, and we hope to see more such arguments as the push for high-speed rail advances.

But up in Minnesota, on the other end of this potential rail line, there’s a big argument brewing about how about to connect Minneapolis and St. Paul with Chicago. Some suggest that the best alignment would follow the existing Amtrak route, along the Mississippi. This is the corridor that the FRA established several years ago for high-speed service into Minnesota. But others, including the nascent Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, would like to see the route go through relatively big Rochester, Minnesota instead, some 30 miles south.

St. Paul Representative Betty McCollum (D) has threatened to oppose the Rochester route, arguing that because the FRA already demonstrated its support for the other route, a Rochester path would make getting federal money more difficult. Her argument makes some sense in the short-term, but it would result in the unfortunate loss of service for one of Minnesota’s largest cities, quite a disappointment considering just how little the planned alignment would have to be altered to provide Rochester service.

Jerusalem LRT to be Completed More Quickly

Jerusalem’s light rail system, whose first phase is currently under construction, will be sped up for a completion later this year, ahead of the planned 2010 opening date. The 14-km system, which faces enormous opposition in the Israeli capital because of the street disruption and slow business its construction has caused, will run southwest-to-northeast through the city, with a stop just outside the Walled City at Jaffa Gate.

New mayor Nir Barkat ran as an opponent of the light rail system, suggesting that “environmentally friendly” buses would be more appropriate for the city and that rail investment was a waste of money. There’s also been a lot of discussion about the “inappropriateness” of Santiago Calatrava’s new Chords Bridge, which looms over the landscape and will allow trains to traverse a valley just beyond the Walled City. The system’s future, which was to include seven more lines, seems to be in doubt, but this initial Red Line will go into operation, as the Mayor has suggested rightfully that it’s simply too late to cancel the project. So he’s going to push ahead with 24-hour construction that will allow the project to be completed as soon as possible to avoid more disruption to life in the city center.

Jerusalem’s light rail is one of the most advanced systems currently under construction, with elevated security measures such as bullet-proof glass and hidden machinery incorporated into the trains built by Alstom. Despite vocal opposition, the light rail line will provide useful and needed alternative mobility for a city currently choked by traffic.

Norfolk’s LRT to Expand to Virginia Beach

The Tide Light Rail system, which is currently under construction along a 7.4-mile alignment in Norfolk, Virginia, is likely to be expanded into nearby Virginia Beach along a 10.6-mile corridor currently used by Norfolk-Southern freight rail operations. The city is under negotiations with the company to purchase the corridor, thereby allowing an easy expansion. It is always easier to develop a transit corridor when the right-of-way already exists, so we should see this project getting going soon, as long as the Tide’s opening goes as expected early next year.

Image above from Jerusalem Light Rail website