Israeli Transportation Minister Proposes Roads Through Jerusalem Forest to Ease Traffic

Environmental authorities seek to halt plan, arguing that it would seriously harm the landscape, including ancient agricultural sites

A road in the Jerusalem Forest, July 31, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Plans now under discussion to ease Jerusalem’s traffic jams would cause significant harm to the Jerusalem Forest, one of the city’s most important “green lungs.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently ordered ministry staffers to consider plans to pave two new roads through the forest and turn a modest access road into a two-lane highway. These plans, which come on top of an existing plan for a new road near Mevasseret Zion, are meant to ease the traffic in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

Smotrich’s order was a response to complaints from Har Nof residents who fear that the neighborhood’s already heavy traffic will be greatly worsened by infrastructure work at Jerusalem’s main entrance that started this month. Ministry professional toured the neighborhood two weeks ago to see the problem firsthand.

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The ministry then decided that Moriah, the company responsible for implementing ministry projects in Jerusalem, should explore routes for two possible roads through the forest. One would run from Har Nof to the Beit Zayit swimming pool. The other would link the neighborhood’s Slonim Square to a paved road that already runs through the forest, which Har Nof residents currently use as a bypass road.

The ministry will also consider expanding that existing road, which was originally built to serve visitors to the forest, so that it can serve as a full-fledged transportation artery. Several months ago, the ministry and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund agreed to upgrade this road to make it safer and add a bike and pedestrian lane to it, but the new proposal would also expand the traffic lanes.

Normally, proposed new roads undergo complex, lengthy studies. But the ministry has fast-tracked studies of the new roads through the Jerusalem Forest, so they’re supposed to be finished in a month. Currently, there are no approved plans for roads through the forest.

The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund, which is responsible for the forest, said the ministry hasn’t yet sent it anyofficial plans for paving roads through the site.

The ministry said Smotrich ordered his staff to explore “possible solutions to ease the traffic jams in Har Nof caused by large-scale infrastructure work now being done near the neighborhood, including the construction of Route 16 between Motza and the Begin Highway. Neighborhood officials suggested several temporary solutions to the area’s traffic jams, and they are now being studied by the Moriah company. Under an agreement between Keren Kayemeth and the Transportation Ministry, vehicular traffic through the forest will be barred once the infrastructure work ends.”

But an environmental official said that paving a road through the forest would completely destroy it, turning it from a recreational site into a transportation artery.

The part of the Jerusalem Forest near Har Nof covers some 600 dunams. But in the section where the planned roads would be built, only a fairly narrow strip of forest remains, and it mainly serves Har Nof residents.

The road near Mevasseret Zion, which is further along in the planning process, would damage a much more important section of the forest from a nature standpoint. This road would link the Ein Hemed National Park to Mevasseret’s Hamagresa neighborhood. It is meant to ease traffic jams both within Mevasseret and between Mevasseret and Jerusalem.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority sought to halt discussion of that plan, arguing that it would seriously harm the landscape, including ancient agricultural sites, as well as the entrance to the Ein Hemed park. The regional planning committee consequently agreed to freeze it for now and explore alternatives for improving the transportation situation in Mevasseret.

“Aside from the direct damage done by paving the road, we fear it will bring other development and construction plans for the region’s open areas in its wake,” explained Avraham Shaked of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who is the representative for environmental organizations on the committee.