Jerusalem Fast-tracks Planned Cable Car to Western Wall Despite Criticism

73 cars, 3,000 passengers per hour: Opponents fear proposal to alleviate Old City traffic would be 'Disneyland-like,' subvert public interest in favor of settlers

A simulation of the Jerusalem cable car
Screenshot from the Jerusalem municipality's YouTube

Plans for a cable car to the Old City are being fast-tracked by the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality, over objections of its environmental and political implications. The cable car is expected to approach sensitive sites such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, provoking strong criticism from the Palestinians and the international community.

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Meetings with residents near the cable car’s planned stops have been held over the past few weeks and a public information center has been opened. The project is to be presented to the National Infrastructure Committee in three weeks. Despite increasing opposition to the plan, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority, barring complications, the cable car will be in operation in 2021.

The Jerusalem Development Authority is presenting the 200-million shekel ($57 million) project as a means of solving the snarled traffic around the Old City. The first phase calls for three stops: near the old train station, at the Mount Zion parking lot and on the roof of the Kedem Center, the planned visitor center at the City of David. According to the plan, each car along the 1.4-kilometer line will be able to carry up to 10 passengers, and 73 cars will operate simultaneously for a total capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour at peak times.

The system will be automatic – a car will leave every 15 to 20 minutes whether or not there are passengers. The cars will travel at 21 kilometers per hour, making the trip in less than five minutes.

The cable car will require construction of 15 large concrete pylons, the tallest of which will be 26 meters high.

In addition to the political problems foreseen due to major objections from the Palestinians and the international community, the cable car is expected to run afoul of landscape preservationists and activists concerned about its intrusion into the Old City skyline. They fear the cable car will turn into a tourist attraction, a Disneyland-like feature, rather than a means of public transport. However, the Jerusalem Development Authority says the cable car will hardly be visible; the cars will not run above the Old City walls but rather alongside them. The cable car will produce fewer emissions than the hundreds of buses it will replace, making it an ecological project, the authority said.

Attorney Daniel Zeidman, an expert on Jerusalem and a left-wing activist, rejects the authority’s claims. “There are four worrisome aspects to this project,” he said. “Without reference to political matters or religious sensitivities, this is a crime against Jerusalem. Disrespect for the unique value of the city and another example of the ‘disneyfication’ of Jerusalem under [Mayor Nir] Barkat. Someone who loves Jerusalem could not conceive of such a project.” Zeidman also said the idea that “someone can send a cable car 150 meters away from the Al Aqsa Mosque is smoking the wrong thing.” Thirdly, Zeidman said, the project “is another example of how the public interest and the interests of Jerusalemites are being subverted for the good of the settlers of Silwan, with the final station shamelessly at the Kedem Center, serving the narrow ideological interests of the settlers.” Finally, Zeidman called the project “a clumsy attempt to unify the divided city by means of engineering gimmicks.”

Jerusalem Councilwoman Laura Warton (Meretz) also opposes the plan, saying the pylons and the stations will disfigure the city. “Like Nir Barkat said, the real goal is to show who’s boss in Jerusalem and complicate any possibility to separate peacefully into two capitals,” she asserted.

The planners argue the system will be able to resolve the traffic problems around the Old City and daily save hundreds of tourist and public bus trips. “Tourists who come to Jerusalem for a day or two spend many hours in traffic jams. With the cable car, in four-and-a-half minutes they’ll be at the Dung Gate, without burdening the existing roads,” an official at the Jerusalem Development Authority said.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin has declared the project a national infrastructure project, which means its passage will be expedited by sending it for approval to the National Infrastructure Committee. The committee is to meet on December 13 to hear details of the plan. The Jerusalem Development Authority says it hopes the project will be approved within six months.

According to the Jerusalem Development Authority, an international firm specializing in such projects will be in charge, although the authority declined to divulge the firm’s name. A few years ago, a French company quit the project following pressure from the French government, due to its political sensitivity.