A Tree Grows in Jerusalem - or Not

Efforts to beautify the light-rail system are suffering from the same blight of mismanagement that characterizes the whole embattled project

Alongside Jerusalem's new light-rail tracks, 3,500 trees and hundreds of bushes are now being planted in one of the country's largest landscaping projects.

This massive effort was supposed to be one of the jewels in the crown of the light-rail project, and was planned by the Jerusalem municipality, the Transportation Ministry and the company responsible for building the light-rail system, City Pass. The planners envisioned that the vegetation would transform many of Jerusalem's streets, including the main thoroughfare, Jaffa Road, which until recently had a total of five trees. Now it has hundreds.

The plantings were also supposed to restore to the capital something of its "green" image, and to help residents get used to the idea of the controversial transportation system.

However, Haaretz has recently received municipal reports showing that the haplessness and poor management that characterized the entire light-rail project have blighted the trees as well.

The agreements between the state and City Pass included a long list of demands regarding the trees, from the thickness of the trunks to the kind of fertilizer to be used and the size of the hole dug for each sapling. One of the most important issues detailed in the agreements is the type of soil to be used: Planners wanted to afford the trees the best possible conditions, so they would grow uniformly and quickly, and without harming the nearby infrastructure.

The agreement detailing City Pass' commitment states: "While preparing the ground, stones larger than seven centimeters will be removed. The soil will be terra rossa ... It will be crumbled and clean of seeds, roots and pieces of bulbs ... and will not contain stones larger than five centimeters, and the proportion of stones will be no more than 10 percent; the acidity will be pH 7-8."

Further along, the documents details the soil's salinity, the type of pesticide and fertilizers to be used, and more. "Soil that does not conform to these demands will be removed by the contractor at his expense," it states.

However, tests conducted by the Jerusalem municipality and other authorities in recent months have shown that the contractors City Pass hired are far from meeting these stringent requirements. They may even have planted the trees in leftover building waste.

A report on the dirt used for landscaping alongside the train tracks, prepared by the Agriculture Ministry's field laboratory, states that all the sampled sites had soil of such a poor quality that it was poisoning the trees. For example, on Moshe Dayan Street in Pisgat Ze'ev, the soil was found to be 42 percent stone, well beyond the permitted 10 percent.

At nearly all the other sites sampled, calcium and chloride concentrations were tens and even hundreds of percentage points beyond the maximum levels determined in the City Pass agreement.

"After examining the results of the tests, I hereby state that the soil is not suitable for landscaping. The results at all the sites indicate the soil is unfit for use," wrote the municipality's chief botanist Dr. Rakefet Hadar-Gabay, at the end of June.

"I would like to mention, for example: 1. Very high salinity to the point of toxicity [which will damage the plants]; 2. High percentages of phosphorous to the point of toxicity; and 3. High percentages of lime that do not allow for plant growth. Use of such soil for growing plants will prevent them from developing and will cause damage for years to come," she wrote.

The implications of such a situation are far-reaching: Instead of a uniform and beautiful avenue of plantings, the contractors' apparent efforts to save money will lead to ragged, uneven growth and to damage to the landscape. In the worst case, the trees will start to die; equally dire, they may send roots out under the train's electricity and communications infrastructures.

Based on this report, the municipality and the Transportation Ministry are planning to sue City Pass and demand that it replace the soil and repair the damage. For Jerusalemites who wonder why the trees are yellowing and unhealthy-looking, well, it seems they can blame it on the contractor.

City Pass' response: "The company will make certain all the soil that does not meet the standards stated in the agreement is replaced. The Transportation Ministry has expressed confidence that City Pass will have the soil replaced."

The municipality told Haaretz: "The municipality expects City Pass to conform strictly to the instructions of the municipality and professional organizations, and to repair all the faults, including replacing trees and taking any other measures that may be required."