Unjamming the Jerusalem Tel Aviv highway

As ambitious improvements begin on Road 1 this summer, expect congestion to get worse.

Road 1, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, inaugurated in 1977, is due to get a serious face lift, but construction work to widen the road on the stretch from the Shaar Hagai mountain pass to the capital's entrance will make the exhausting drive even more enervating.

This stretch of road, built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is full of twists and turns, although the original intersections were closed and replaced with interchanges in the past decade. These twists and turns, including the infamous "death curve" at Motza, as well as the steep inclines at the Kastel and Mevasseret Zion, slow drivers to 70 km/h, even when there is little traffic on the road.

7,000 vehicles, many of them heavy trucks, pass through Shaar Hagai every hour at peak times. Minister of Transport Israel Katz eased the congestion when he banned trucks from entering Shaar Hagai before 9:30 am, but this is only a temporary and very partial solution. A study by Israel National Roads Company Ltd. found that unless the four-lane road is widened, within 20 years, the average travel time along the 16-kilometer stretch from Shaar Hagai to Jerusalem's western entrance will take more than 40 minutes - almost as long as the time needed to travel the entire 60 kilometers from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem when the road is clear.

The widening and straightening of Road 1 is one of the Roads Company's key projects for the coming years. The estimated cost of the project is NIS 2.35 billion, including widening the section from Shaar Hagai to Shoresh to six lanes, and eliminating the Motza bend with two parallel bridges that will directly connect to a tunnel beneath the Harel interchange from the Ein Hemed interchange. These three-lane 800-meter bridges will span the Motza valley and link up with the highway on the final incline into the city.

The road goes through the mountain pass at Shaar Hagai will be flattened by raising the roadbed by eight meters to accommodate a third lane in each direction. When the work is completed, future travelers will wonder if the pictures taken of the two-lane road through Bab el-Wad (Shaar Hagai in Arabic) during the 1948 War of Independence are of the same place.

The Road 1 project is due to be completed in 2016, and the Roads Company will carry out the work simultaneously along the entire section from Shaar Hagai to Jerusalem. The Roads Company is breaking its head to come up with solutions to ease the ensuing congestion during construction, but admit that during the height of the work, in 2013-15, drives would be wise to avoid Road 1 altogether.

The Ein Hemed interchange, between Harel and Shoresh, will also be rebuilt, with the road bed raised to the level of the overpass. Traffic to Abu Ghosh, Beit Nekufa, and Kiryat Anavim will be use an underpass, and the area's remaining wildlife will get an underpass of its own in the form of an ecological transit at Neve Ilan.

The Roads Company is now completing the land expropriations in the Shaar Hagai area, and the work is due to begin in late August or early September. Road 1 Administration chief David Landsman expects only light disruption during the first year, because the work will be along the shoulders of the present road, and on the mountain slopes above it. The work will be round-the-clock, and the Roads Company promises to keep two lanes open each way throughout the construction period.

"I promise to keep the road open," Landsman told "Globes". "But I cannot promise that the present traffic speed will be maintained."

The Roads Company is especially perturbed by the work's effect on the average Israeli driver. "Drivers tend to hit the brakes when they see roadwork, even when it's far from the road itself," says a company source. "We don’t know why this is, curiosity or something else, but the result of this instinct to hit the brakes can be felt kilometers back down the road."

Over the past few months, the Roads Company has been examining solutions to ease the expected congestion. The traffic planning consultancy firm hired has not yet completed its work, which included examining all the alternative routes to Road 1. The results were not encouraging. Only Road 443, between the Shemen Interchange with Road 1, past Modi'in, and to northern Jerusalem can serve as an alternative to Road 1. The Roads Company is examining with the Ministry of Defense about stationing more troops at the checkpoints on Road 443 where it enters the West Bank.

Another option is to widen Road 443 to boost its capacity. Another idea is to add public transport to Jerusalem, with buses between the city and the park and ride lot at Shappirim interchange, which currently serves the Tel Aviv fast toll lane.

In the end however, Roads Authority general manager Shai Baras is seeking to lower expectations. "If anyone has a patent to carry out work on this scale on such a primary traffic artery without causing congestion, I'll buy it today," he says.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 24, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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