Proposed Tunnel for Jerusalem Light Rail Could Triple Project's Price

The tunnel would also damage two local parks and delay the completion of the project by some three years

A tunnel built for the new Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem train line, 2011
Nir Keidar

A tunnel being considered for the Jerusalem light rail’s third line is expected to triple the cost of the project, damage two local parks and delay the completion of the project by some three years.

The proposed tunnel would be in the city’s German Colony neighborhood, where over the past year residents and business owners have been waging a public campaign against laying the train tracks in the center of the historic Emek Refaim Road crossing it. The tunnel is being considered following the residents’ objections, which have prevented this part of the line from being approved.

Jerusalem’s District Planning Committee favors the tunnel, which submitted documents show will cost half a billion shekels more than the original plan, and will cause damage to Liberty Bell Park and Train Track Park. The committee is due to decide on the light rail track route in a month.

On Monday the committee discussed various alternatives for the train line, presented by the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan Team, a part-state, part-municipal body in charge of managing the capital’s future transportation system.

The original plan has the light rail running along Emek Refaim Road while cars travel alongside it. This requires trains from both directions to alternate using one set of rails in a section of the road, with those coming from the opposite direction having to wait their turn. Another alternative has the trains traveling on two sets of rails on Emek Refaim Road, but closes the street to private vehicles altogether.

Architect Avi Lindenbaum, a member of the Blue Line (Jerusalem’s third light rail line) planning team, believes the latter is less feasible. “In principle this improves the road’s look, but completely prevents private cars from traveling on it, as well as people who want to visit the street on Friday and see a movie in Lev Smadar cinema,” he says.

Residents of the German Colony and nearby streets are vehemently opposed to the Blue Line and maintain that it will destroy the neighborhood’s historic character, businesses and picturesque atmosphere. Residents of nearby neighborhoods, however, support the original proposal, with a single track in Emek Refaim. They claim the first group’s campaign isn’t taking into consideration the light rail’s contribution to developing the entire area.

Another alternative based on old plans consists of diverting the light rail line to Hebron Road and from there through the Talpiot industrial area to Oranim junction and the Katamonim neighborhood. This option would be detrimental to residents of Katamonim, who will have to travel seven more minutes in each direction. Due to the topographical layout, extensive earth works would also be required, says Lindenbaum.

The planners thoroughly examined two other alternatives that are seen as more doable. One has the light rail passing through Train Track Park, where the historic railway line that the park is named after used to be. This is a relatively fast, simple and easy alternative compared to the others. However, it would mean that the park, which has become a great urban success in the last decade, would be torn down.

The other alternative has the train passing through a 1,650-meter tunnel under Train Track Park, with stations on either side of it. This is the option the opponents of the train in Emek Refaim road are pushing for.

A presentation obtained by Haaretz shows that this plan will lead to engineering and planning problems as well as damaging both Liberty Bell Park and Train Track Park, which is bound to raise residents’ objections.

For example, the train’s entrance to the underground tunnel requires a 230-meter open canal, which would shorten Liberty Bell Park and lead to the destruction of about two dunams of it. On the other side of the tunnel, a 130-meter-long portal would shorten Train Track Park. The plan would rezone the extensive gardening grounds and require many ancient olive trees in Liberty Bell park and dozens of eucalyptus trees and old plane trees in Train Track Park to be chopped down.

According to the presentation, the tunnel option would cost an estimated 800 million shekels – compared to 254 million shekels for the Emek Refaim Road option and 175 million shekels for the Train Track Park option. The district committee believes the actual costs will be higher.

Lindenbaum says the tunnel option could delay the works by two or three years. On top of the damage to the parks, the city’s First Station site would have to be closed down.

Asked why the tunnel cannot be extended so that it wouldn’t harm the park, Lindenbaum says that “Oranim junction is supposed to be a meeting of the Blue, Green and Purple lines and extending the tunnel farther would hinder the train’s future operations.”

Lawyer Itamar Shahar, one of the supporters of laying the light rail on Emek Refaim Road, set up a website for fellow supporters’ posts. The site features a petition, which 950 people supporters have already signed.

Shahar says the discussion clearly shows that the Emek Refaim alternative is the only valid one: “It’s not clear why hundreds of millions of shekels have to be wasted, when the only benefit is continuing to enable private cars to travel on Emek Refaim Road.”

“In contrast, the rail track in Emek Refaim will clearly upgrade the street and the neighborhood. The main downside is the construction period,” he says.

Shahar criticizes the committee’s foot-dragging. “The committee has all the backing to choose the Emek Refaim alternative,” he says. “I don’t know any planners, apart from those hired by the objectors, who don’t think the Emek Refaim alternative is the best. And yet the committee keeps prolonging the process with all kinds of unclear procedural arguments that don’t pertain to planning.”

The opponents to the Emek Refaim line say the presentation intended to persuade the committee to vote for it, because that’s the plan the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan team supports.

“The way this document was drafted is mistaken and misleading,” says Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, one of the protest’s leaders, adding that the northern portal shown in the plan was copied from a document prepared by the plan’s opponents together with tunnel experts, and it isn’t problematic and will hardly damage Libert Bell Park.

The southern portal, on the other hand, was set up to damage Train Track Park, although it doesn’t have to, says Hirschfeld: “The portal can be moved, or other simple engineering solutions can be used so that it isn’t necessary to destroy part of the park.”

He also said that ultimately, having the train pass through Emek Refaim Road will cause more damage to Train Track Park than the tunnel option because traffic will be diverted to the park during the years of construction.

“The problem isn’t Emek Refaim Road, but the side streets where all the traffic will go. It will bury everything that is the German Colony,” he says. “This is the only historic neighborhood left in Jerusalem.” He adds that the interests of the residents there and those in nearby neighborhoods are the same: “They want mass transportation as well as to protect Train Track Park and that’s exactly what we want. The only thing that will accomplish that is a tunnel under Harakevet Road.”