The opening of Yitla tunnel which was unconventionally blasted out from the inside.
The opening of Yitla tunnel which was unconventionally blasted out from the inside. Photo by Emil Salman
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Construction of a railway bridge over the Yitla gorge reflects a sea change in planning, but environmentalists say the authorities could still have done more to protect this natural beauty spot in the Judean Hills.

The bridge, currently being built for a new high-speed railway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, has irreversibly damaged the natural surroundings, say greens.

But the planning process for the construction by Israel Railways does reflect a change in the approach of national planning authorities, which now attach greater weight to environmental considerations than in the past. The new approach was not enough to change the decision about the bridge, but it did influence its planning.

The new bridge, across the gorge near Sha'ar Hagai, where the ascent to Jerusalem begins, will connect two tunnels whose entrances are still under construction. The western tunnel will be about four kilometers long, while the eastern one will be 11.5 kilometers long - making it the longest tunnel in Israel.

The project is scheduled for completion in 2017, at a total cost of more than NIS 7 billion.

"What is clear," said Avraham Shaked, a nature preservation coordinator with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, "is that the gorge we knew no longer exists. You can't hike in it anymore the way you could before, with the feeling that you are getting away from civilization, even if you are in the center of the country.

"There is no way to rehabilitate a river that has been hurt like this," he added. "The best we can do is cosmetic reconstruction by means of landscape design."

"The Yitla gorge will no longer be the nature experience that it used to be," said Ze'ev Hacohen from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. "It will be a different experience, part of which will be the sight of an engineering project, which is impressive in its own way."

Green groups, led by the Nature and Parks Authority, fought the plan. Instead of a bridge, another tunnel connecting should be built, they argued. The Interior Ministry's planning directorate rejected this idea, not because it lacked engineering sense but for fear that changing the plans would delay the entire project by two years.

But the Yitla gorge story does reflect an emerging change in the approach of planning authorities. Ten years ago, Israel Railways would probably have been able to persuade decision makers to allow it to build a bridge in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. In the present case, the decisions of a special team set up by the planning directorate also played a part. The team, headed by environmental planner Ephraim Shlain, has the authority to issue directives to Israel Railways about its working methods.

One of the team's major revisions for the bridge constitutes a precedent. In contrast to similar projects, the entrance of the tunnel on the western bank of the Yitla Stream will not be built from the outside, in a way that first stabilizes the rock walls and then connects to the tunnel being dug in the bowels of the hill. Instead, all the work will be done by cutting from within the hill to the outside. The entrance, too, will be built in this way.

"The significance of working from within the hill is that there will be no need to build an access road to the area in order to breach the entrance from the outside. This substantially reduces the damage that will be caused to the river area," said Tamar Darel-Fossfeld, a landscape architect overseeing the work on behalf of the Interior Ministry team.

"Israel Railways claimed that the plan was not practicable, but we conducted tests with experts and decided that it was possible and justified to preserve the river," Shlain added.

"What was demanded of us was unusual. Our professional advisers were concerned mainly about the safety aspect - particularly the possible collapse of the rock walls," says Yaron Ravid, deputy CEO of Israel Railways. "But we decided that there was no point in starting another battle and gave our assent. I think that in general we have improved our approach in terms of preserving the landscape and environment."

Hacohen, of the Nature and Parks Authority, added: "Maybe this struggle will create a precedent, so when roads and rail lines are built elsewhere there will be a demand to work from within the hill in order to avert the ruinous cutting of access roads through nature."

"The professional elements in the Interior Ministry and on its behalf are those who are responsible for the unnecessary decision to prefer a bridge over a tunnel," said Shaked, of the Society for the Protection of Nature. "Now they are really trying to reduce the damage as much as possible. Israel Railways does not deserve any compliments, because it objected to the planning changes. In contrast, the contractor, the Shapir company, deserves praise for doing careful, precise work."