Jerusalem Set to Unveil Controversial Plan for Cable Car in Old City

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The Western Wall. Dung Gate, near the wall, would be one of four stops for a cable car project initiated by the Jerusalem Municipality.Credit: Reuters

Surveyors have visited the courtyard of a church on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion several times over the last few months. Their goal is to find a site for a giant pillar that will help support a cable car running to the Western Wall, the Old City and the Mount of Olives.

The Jerusalem municipality has been quietly working on this ambitious cable car project for several years. But the plan is expected to spark fierce opposition, on both diplomatic and environmental grounds.

About two years ago, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat declared the cable car would be up and running in two years. But until recently, it seemed as if nothing was moving: The project hasn’t even been submitted to the planning bureaucracy for approval yet.

Thursday morning, however, the French paper Le Figaro reported that the municipality recently hired the French company SAFEGE to do a feasibility study. SAFEGE then contracted with another French company, Poma, which specializes in cable cars, the report said.

An Israeli consulting company, the Pareto Group, and the Jerusalem Development Authority are also involved in the project, and Haaretz has learned that so is Elad, the right-wing organization that runs the City of David national park near the Western Wall. The plans for the cable car note that the project can’t be advanced until Elad’s plan for a new visitor center is approved, and both the center and the proposed cable car station near the Wall have been given the same name – Kedem.

The visitor center is due to be discussed by the National Planning and Building Council’s appeals committee next Thursday.

Because of Elad’s involvement, the director general of the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Dvir Kahana, has been barred from dealing with the cable car project, since he was a senior official in Elad before moving to his current position.

The municipality plans to unveil the cable car project at a press conference in another few weeks. According to a plan obtained by Haaretz, the car will run through four stations, in the following order: the First Station complex near Emek Refaim Street; the Old City’s Dung Gate, which leads to the Wall; the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives; and Gethsemane.

Aside from the stations, however, the cable car will require dozens of enormous pillars to support the cables. Those pillars would have to run straight through Jerusalem’s holy basin and be built next to some of the city’s most sensitive religious sites. One proposal, which was ultimately rejected, even had the cable car running above the southeast corner of the Temple Mount.

The project’s planners say the cable car will solve the problem of how to move tourists around the Old City without further clogging the area’s narrow, crowded streets. It will dramatically reduce vehicular traffic in the area, by 30 percent for private cars and 50 percent for buses, and that in turn will dramatically reduce the air pollution caused by these vehicles, they added.

The project will cost about 125 million shekels ($31 million), they said, adding that is substantially less than any other transportation alternative, given the city’s mountainous terrain.

“The project interests us greatly, and we’ll be ready when the bidding stage arrives,” Christian Bouvier, vice president of Poma, told Le Figaro. He predicted that building the cable car would take 10 to 18 months and cost five to ten million euros per kilometer.

The planners have put forth an ambitious timetable for the project: They want to submit the plans to the relevant planning committees by April and have the committees approve them within a year, enabling the tender for the project to be published in April 2016.

But given the fierce opposition the project is expected to generate, that may well be unrealistic.

“Let’s leave the political issue aside for a moment,” said Daniel Seidemann, director of the Terrestrial Jerusalem organization. “The venture is a crime against Jerusalem ... It’s a Disney-fication of Jerusalem. The mayor and the government view Jerusalem as a tourist site, but they feel no respect for the city. It’s like opening a skating rink in the Vatican to increase the number of pilgrims.”

Seidemann also compared the project to the plan to build a new pedestrian bridge leading to the Temple Mount’s Mughrabi Gate. The plan was first proposed in 2007, but due to the diplomatic storm it roused, it remains on ice to this day. “How can they even think of sending a cable car 150 meters from Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and expect everyone to applaud?” he demanded.

The municipality said the project, which is currently in the planning stage, is meant to provide a solution to transportation needs in and around the Old City, and was chosen “because a cable car doesn’t need a lot of infrastructure on the ground and therefore won’t harm the area’s important sites.”

The project, it continued, will serve residents of all the nearby neighborhoods as well as tourists of all faiths, by enabling them to reach the holy sites more quickly and easily.

Finally, it added, “The Elad organization isn’t involved in planning the project. We’re coordinating with them because one of the stations is [planned] on land under their responsibility.”

Elad said it welcomed the cable car project, noting that the number of tourists visiting Jerusalem is expected to grow in the coming years, “so there’s a need for strategic thinking and a solution to the problem of movement and accessibility.” But it said it wasn’t involved in the planning.

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