Israeli Environmentalists Protest Planned Jerusalem Highway, Tunnels

Residents and activists warn of ecological 'disaster' in plans for major projects to expand roads and build intersections

A traffic jam in Jerusalem, March 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Jerusalem residents and environmental groups see a threatened ecological "disaster" in the plans for a series of major infrastructure projects to expand roads and build intersections west of the city, being promoted by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Transportation Ministry.

The eight proposed projects, mostly for areas just outside the city, involve construction of a large park-and-ride lot with 1,000 spots at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem and highways connecting the suburb of Mevasseret Zion, the Castel National Park area and the outlying neighborhood of Ein Karem. The largest plan, recently presented for members of the public to submit their objections, calls for the construction of two underground tunnels at the Ora intersection, in southwestern Jerusalem.

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Ein Karem residents and activists fear the scheme is aimed at reviving a huge transportation plan dropped about a decade ago, along with a plan to expand the city to the west and build new neighborhoods on what, for now, are green areas. They say the division of the blueprint into eight separate plans is aimed at advancing them “piece by piece,” instead of presenting an overall plan that would provide a full picture, which opponents say would be an alarming one.

The planning team rejected the criticism, saying the plan has nothing to do with the one shelved earlier, which was not designed to pass through the Ora junction.

Opponents, nevertheless, argue the proposed road would change the landscape, worsen traffic problems and give way to the construction of new neighborhoods in woodlands and open spaces. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish National Fund have also backed residents warning of an imminent environmental and transportation disaster, as the new highway, on top of its influence on the landscape, would serve mostly private vehicles.

The Ora intersection plans were presented to the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee ostensibly as part of an effort to improve public transportation in the city, and to allow the light rail to travel to Hadassah uninterrupted, while private cars would be diverted to tunnels beneath the junction. The proposed tunnels would also allow the construction of a planned new neighborhood on the Lavan Ridge, near the Ora intersection.

Opponents of the proposal say the minutes of the planning committee meetings reveal the bigger plans behind it. In practice, they say, the Ora intersection is to be built to accommodate all incoming traffic through the western approaches to Jerusalem, eventually creating a four-lane highway, two lanes in each direction, into the capital. The highway would begin at the Hemed interchange, and pass through Mevasseret Zion, the Sataf and then to Ein Karem, where it would bypass the hospital and join the tunnels at Ora.

“The question is whether we want roads that cross the hills or want public transportation,” said Liron Dean, a planner for the Society for the Protection of Nature. “If there is a problem with the Ora intersection then we need to sit down and solve it, but the Jerusalem Hills are sacred space, as far as I’m concerned. It’s impossible to solve the problem with tunnels that begin at the Hadassah Hospital,” said environmental activist Yael Avissar.

The JNF also filed an objection, hinting that the real reason behind the plan it is not easing traffic at the Ora intersection. “Increasing passing traffic contradicts the policy of the use of public transportation,” wrote the JNF. “It raises doubts as to the goal of the plan as presented.”

The planning team rejects these arguments saying the Ora junction plan is intended to give priority to the light rail trains. Opponents also point to another highway entrance to the city now under construction, Route 16, which will pass through tunnels from the Motza area through to the Begin highway at the city’s main entrance. The road will make it easier to enter the city with a private car but at the expense of more traffic and pollution, which better public transport could avert, experts say.