Jerusalem Light Rail revives city center

Two years after the light rail began operating, there has been a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians in the city center.

A survey by the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan Team has found that two-thirds of the city's residents are satisfied or very satisfied with the light rail service. Two years after the light rail began operating amid sharp criticism of its slowness and unreliability, the survey, published by "Globes" for the first time, shows that it is overcoming teething problems.

27% of respondents in the current survey were very satisfied with the light rail's service, up from low of 11% of respondents in January 2011, when the free rides were ended.

The light rail still gets low scores for overcrowding on the trains, and middling scores for reliability, comfort, stations' cleanliness, waiting time, and travel time to destinations. The highest scores were achieved for hours of operation and orientation at stations. The trains' frequency still does not meet the terms of CityPass's franchise agreement during rush hour, and the 48-49 minutes travel time along the full length of the line is 10 minutes longer than the agreement's terms.

CityPass and the state are still in arbitration, and there are simultaneous negotiations on a settlement that will include reciprocal withdrawing of the NIS 1 billion lawsuits the parties have filed against each other.

The Jerusalem Light Rail, Israel's only operating light rail system, has 23 stations along its 13.8-kilometer route between Pisgat Zeev in the north and Mount Herzl in the southwest of the city. CityPass, a private company, built and operates the line, after winning the 2002 BOT (build, operate, transfer) tender published by the Ministry of Finance.

After the number of trains was increased from 11 to 21, the light rail carries 130,000 passengers a day, compared with the 160,000 passengers a day carried by Israel Railways on all its lines. The light rail's passenger traffic is projected to reach 200,000 a day when the line is extended to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem in the south and the Neve Yaakov neighborhood in the north, and the branches to the Hebrew University's campuses at Mount Scopus and Givat Ram are built.

Two years after the light rail began operating, preliminary figures indicate a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians in the Jerusalem city center, which can mostly be attributed to the light rail. The number of pedestrians in the city center's Nahalat Shiva area rose 87% from July 2011, when the light rail began operating, to August 2012. The number of pedestrians in the city center rose 41% over the same period.

Strengthening Jerusalem's dying city center was one of the main objectives for building the light rail. Over 30 years, the city center lost its main draws, as major businesses abandoned the Jaffa Road-King George Street-Ben Yehuda Street triangle in favor of industrial zones, such as Talpiot, and malls. Government offices in the area also moved to new government complex. The city center, built during the British Mandate in the 1920-40s, lost its shine. Jaffa Road, once Jerusalem's main commercial artery, turned into a congested, noisy, and polluted bus route.

The Ministry of Transport spent almost NIS 1 billion in upgrades to the Jerusalem city center as part of the preparations for the light rail. It spent NIS 500 million upgrading infrastructures, and NIS 300 million in upgrading the public space, including renovating stores and buildings' facades.

It is not yet clear whether the investment in infrastructures and expectations from the operation of the light rail has been reflected in property values in the city center. The Jerusalem Transport Master Plan Team study found that the average property price on Jaffa Road and Hillel Street nearly doubled to NIS 23,000 per square meter in 2010 from NIS 12,000 in 2004. The problem with the figures is that they do not isolate the contribution of the light rail project to the rising property values, and it is difficult to disaggregate this factor from the general rise in property prices during this period.

Another comparison, based on leading brands, had a discouraging result: well-known veteran Jerusalem stores have continued to abandon the city center and their sites have been taken over by fast food outlets. The weakness of brands in the city center triangle stands out in comparison with the success of the nearby Mamilla Mall, which opened three years ago, and hosts leading global brands. In 2012, several small transactions were reported in which rent reached NIS 300 per square meter per month, the prevailing rent in Israel's leading malls.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 28, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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