Why Does Jerusalem Need Three New Access Roads?

Major new projects will increase traffic congestion, cost billions and destroy one of the last open areas in central Israel

אסנת זמיר
Osnat Zamir
The Elah Valley.
The Elah Valley.Credit: Emil Salman
אסנת זמיר
Osnat Zamir

Government companies and agencies subordinate to Israel’s Transportation Ministry are advancing plans for three massive access roads to Jerusalem, despite widespread acknowledgement that the solution to Israel’s transport morass lies in expanding public transportation, not roads for private vehicles.

“For two decades, the government in general and the Transportation Ministry in particular have been aware that a broad, efficient public transport network is the best solution to the transportation problems in Israel’s metropolises and is a crucial element for economic growth. But until recently, decision makers gave this limited attention,” stated previous State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in 2019. The Transportation Ministry has repeatedly stated over the past few years that it’s changed its approach, albeit at significant delay compared to the rest of the world, and acknowledges that Israel’s transportation crisis needs to be solved by encouraging drivers to forego private cars in exchange for public transportation.

In response, over the past few years, the state has invested tens of billions of shekels in mass transit for Jerusalem, including the light rail, a public transport lane at the city’s entrance, expanded train service, increased bus frequency and a park-and-ride parking lot at the entrance to the city.

And yet, it seems like the Transportation Ministry and the Planning Authority aren’t working based on their own policy, as plans advance on no fewer than three new access roads to Jerusalem: Route 39 through the Elah Valley, a partially approved bypass road at Ora Junction, and Route 16, which is in advanced stages of construction.

Jerusalem already has two access roads, Route 1 and Route 443.

The three projects underway give clear preference to private vehicles, and undermine the advantage of public transport when it comes to convenient access to the city.

Each one of the three roads is being advanced by a different body: the Transport Master Plan Team, Israel Roads Authority and Trans-Israel - Advanced Transportation Solutions (Route 6). The projects are being advanced independently, without any coordination between the three bodies, and the Transportation Ministry isn’t working to take a holistic view of the three projects – the very conduct that the state comptroller criticized in 2019.

Not only will the projects increase traffic congestion, they’re also costing the state billions and destroying local nature in the process. Apparently the Transportation Ministry and the Planning Authority didn’t stop to consider the necessity of the projects and whether they should be carried out in parallel by three separate entities. Due to the area’s challenging topography, which necessitates boring tunnels through stone and building bridges over valleys, each one of the roads is expected to cost billions to build.

Israel’s Tuscany

Route 39 is in the middle of a detailed planning process. It is slated to pass through the Elah Valley, one of the last undeveloped areas left in central Israel, and occasionally referred to as Israel’s Tuscany. The plan calls for a massive highway from Ashkelon to southern Jerusalem, passing through Beitar Ilit and Beit Shemesh. The plan for the road was drafted 20 years ago and set aside, ultimately receiving planning approval only in 2014. Preparations for construction began over the past few months.

“The Finance and Transportation Ministries are proud of their plan for encouraging public transport. So what are we doing here? Taking an outdated plan whose construction will finish only in 2040, according to the Transport Master Plan Team, and ignoring the trend that technology is bringing us of encouraging public transport,” said Hadar Tadmor, head of the Good Energy Initiative NGO, which is spearheading the campaign by residents of the Elah Valley and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council against the project, with support from environmental groups such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Ramon Walman, a resident of Elah Valley kibbutz Nativ Hila, called on the state to re-evaluate before spending billons of shekels to pave a massive elevated road through a nature reserve.

Walman is sure most Israelis would oppose the project. “We don’t have many areas in Israel where you can walk through so many forests. The road will pass through the top of Lupine Hill, a unique site in the area that will likely be destroyed by the construction.”

Walman points out that the current plan ultimately involves building a highway between two ultra-Orthodox cities forecast to undergo fast growth, Beit Shemesh and Beitar Ilit. The road from Ashkelon to Jerusalem is being advanced in four separate sections, he explains, and the final section entering Jerusalem will be the most complicated and expensive to build, due to the tunneling involved, so that’s being put off for now, and it hasn’t even been budgeted yet.

A woman in Beit Shemesh in October.Credit: Emil Salman

What that means is that the project currently entails environmental destruction in order to build a road between the two Haredi cities which could have been served by merely expanding the Beit Shemesh bypass route (Route 10), he says.

This portion of the road, from Tsur Hadassah to Ela Junction, is expected to cost more than 1.5 billion shekels to build; the final two sections from Tsur Hadassah into Jerusalem is expected to cost nearly 4 billion shekels.

“The cement barriers, the ridges and the support walls will make one of central Israel’s last quiet and natural areas look like Route 1, with gashes dozens of meters down into the earth,” says Tadmor. “The Elah Valley is one of the only nature sites in Israel that hasn’t yet been ruined.”

Orit Ramon, head of the Open Landscape Institute, notes that the current road through the area is relatively narrow, with two lanes in each direction, including bicycle traffic, so it doesn’t block wildlife from crossing. “They’d be putting a monster into this delicate fabric, with dozens of meters of excavation. The separation will hurt nature, animals won’t be able to cross and they’ll need to move the Israel Trail.”

Where’s the regulator?

Meanwhile Route 16, two lanes in each direction, is in advanced stages of construction, and is set to open by 2023, connecting the Motza Interchange on Route 1 to Givat Mordechai Junction on Route 50 (Begin Road) via Jerusalem’s southern and western neighborhoods.

The Ora Junction bypass is another project at Jerusalem’s entrance that’s currently caught in a conflict between the planning authorities and green organizations. This project, being advanced by the Transport Master Plan Team – a body including representatives of the Transportation Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality – involves carving a north-south tunnel from Meshua Road (near the Kulitz intersection) to Hadassah Road (near the Kalman Mann intersection). Four roads meet at Ora Junction, and the light rail is set to pass through there as well.

The planners say that moving some of the traffic into tunnels will enable Ora Junction to flow more freely, and will give the light rail preferential passage. The plan involves two two-lane tunnels, one for traffic in each direction, as well as a new road at ground level.

The main opponents include the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and public-transport advocate NGO 15 Minutes, as well as Jerusalem council member Yossi Habilio and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council. Opponents allege the bypass project is part of a plan to build a new entrance road into Jerusalem in bits and pieces, and say it will cut into the Reches Lavan topological formation to the west of the city.

Opponents say that the road, as presented in planning committee discussions, is intended to start in Ein Hemed and pass through the Sataf national park, Hehotzvim, Hadassah and Meshua, ultimately connecting to Begin Road. Such a road straight through the Jerusalem hills, including the widening of existing roads, would bear a heavy ecological price, they say.

The Judean Hills.Credit: Emil Salman

The Transport Master Plan Team emphatically rejects the allegation that the Ora bypass is part of a plan for an entire road, and say that it won’t lead to another road through the Judean hills. The plan is not to build a new road there, but rather to expand some existing roads, as was already approved, they say. The Planning Authority says that this plan will advance public transport by moving a road underground and by giving the light rail preferential passage.

15 Minutes founder Yossi Saidov counters that the plan involves a new underground highway alongside the light rail. “This is a new entrance to Jerusalem that would encourage thousands of private vehicles a day to enter the already congested, crowded city, whose sidewalks have turned into parking lots.”

During planning discussions over the past two years, Nature and Parks Authority representatives have slammed the absurdity of approving another main traffic artery that would increase demand for private cars and take money away from efficient public transport at a time when the government was trying to encourage mass transit.

A month and a half ago, the subcommittee for appeals at the National Planning Authority froze the bypass route’s planning process in response to a petition demanding that the Transport Master Plan Team conduct an ecological survey regarding the impact. The government body has been resisting this due to the bureaucracy, the cost and the necessity of examining alternatives, which could delay development by a year.

The project is slated to cost some 600 million shekels.

The Transportation Ministry stated in response: “The Transportation Ministry invested some 70% of its budget over the past few years in public transit, and is advancing projects totaling billions of shekels that are intended to encourage the use of public transport.

In keeping with a government plan, the ministry’s goal is to increase public transport use by 40% by 2040. “While public transport is given preference for intercity travel, the national road network is still a crucial lifeline for economic activity, primarily transport of goods, and thus developing the roads alongside public transport is crucial for the economy,” it stated. All new roads that have at least two lanes have at least one lane designated for public transit, it noted.

“The Transportation Ministry considers environmental protection to be of utmost importance and invests millions of shekels a year in this,” it stated. Route 16 will improve access to Jerusalem, and will reduce traffic on Route 1 by 30%, it added, thus reducing pollution in the area.

Route 39 is based on an existing road – Route 375 – and is intended to serve nearby residents. Route 375 is narrow, with one lane in each direction, and is very unsafe; the new road will address this, the ministry stated.

The Planning Authority stated: “What’s presented in the article isn’t correct. Contrary to the claims, there’s no plan for new roads into Jerusalem. The Planning Authority places great value on advancing public transport, and is advancing many projects for light rails and trains, park and rides, metros, and more. Route 39 was defined as a crucial road in order to strengthen the connection between the Ashkelon area and Jerusalem given the area’s forecast population growth by 2040.”

The Ora bypass is not a new entrance to Jerusalem, it added. “This is a plan that gives clear preference to the light rail. The tunnel will enable the light rail to pass by 45 times an hour, and enable emergency vehicles to reach Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital.”

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