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)