New Haifa tunnel Oct. 24, 2010 (Alon Ron)
The new tunnel that connects Haifa's eastern and western parts. Photo by Alon Ron
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In May 2007, employees of the Chinese company CCECC arrived in Israel and unloaded their equipment at Haifa Port. The firm had been chosen to dig the Carmel Tunnels - one in each direction - which open next month. The director of the project, Haim Barak, and the main architect, Walter Wittke from Germany, were shocked. "Prof. Wittke said he couldn't believe his eyes; this was equipment they used in Europe 40 years ago," says Barak.

The Chinese equipment was mostly intended for manual labor - manual drills, small cement mixers and hand cement sprayers for covering walls - the exact opposite of the Europeans' computerized systems operated remotely. "Prof. Wittke didn't think they would be able to complete the job on time," says Barak. The Chinese finished the work on Israel's longest tunnel five months ahead of the deadline.

The tunnel, about six kilometers long, connects Haifa's eastern and western exits and spares drivers traffic jams both below and on Mount Carmel. The trip, which currently takes half an hour to 50 minutes at peak hours, will now take between six and eight minutes. And the city is connected to the tunnel by interchanges and bridges near Haifa's biggest mall.

Take the fast lane

The tunnel, 200 meters below residential neighborhoods, will operate as a toll road costing NIS 11.40 for the entire length and half for one segment. To pay, there will be toll booths, or you can register for the fast lane, where special systems will identify subscribers' license plates.

Every year the Israeli economy loses about NIS 20 billion due to traffic jams; NIS 2 billion of this is lost in Haifa, says Uri Luft, the deputy CEO for marketing and operations at CarmelTun, the project's developer. "Our estimate is that the tunnels will decrease traffic by 15 percent on the alternative routes, so those drivers [who don't use the tunnels] will also have fewer traffic jams," Luft says.

He says thousands of drivers have already signed up. Highway 6 subscribers will also be enrolled in the fast lane. CarmelTun expects traffic congestion during the tunnel's first days because many drivers will use the toll booths. But Luft expects that about 70 percent of drivers will eventually register for the fast lane.

In January 2009 the two sides of the tunnel were connected. "That was really emotional," says Barak. "People worked from two directions and didn't see each other. One day they drilled through the stone to figure out the measurements [for the blast]. I would go up and look through the drill holes to see the workers on the other side."

East meets West

But before he reached that moment he had to get over a bigger obstacle: "Bridging East and West - two cultures that simply don't resemble each other in their worldview or technology." Barak says 550 Chinese workers came to Israel for the project, including laborers, engineers and even accountants and administrators.

The Chinese use the services of others only when they have no alternative. For example, the Chinese preferred to do the concrete work themselves and not obtain it from specialized contractors, as is customary in Israel and elsewhere in the world. Chinese workers lived near the building site and were on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At any given time 180 laborers were at work.

And there were differences of opinion between the Chinese workers and the European planners. Barak notes the risks the Chinese workers took to move the project ahead, compared to the meticulousness of the European tunnel engineer and architect.

In recent months, even before the completion of the paving, the tunnel became a tourist attraction. After 10 years of legal delays and objections, and three more years of construction, the Carmel Tunnels are about to open.