Reaching Jerusalem from the Mediterranean has historically always been an ordeal.
The opening of the newly widened Road 1 between Jerusalem and the Shaar Hagai Interchange and mountain pass 20 kilometers to the west of the city last year had been touted by the Ministry of Transport as the solution to that ordeal. The impressive NIS 2.5 billion project, including the 800 meter Harel tunnels and the Motza elevated section would cut the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem drive to just 35 minutes.
To be fair it does take just 35 minutes to drive between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, providing it is not during the busy hours of the morning, afternoon and evening or when there are road works during the nights. The average morning commute from Mevasseret Zion, 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem on the highway to Tel Aviv, is nearly an hour.
For much of the day the congestion has merely shifted since the new road was opened. A new bottleneck did appear to the west of Shaar Hagai but this was swiftly dealt with by expanding two lanes into three lanes in each direction, at the expense of the generous hard shoulders and a certain amount of road safety. The traffic does flow much better out of the city, perhaps symbolically making it easier for people to leave Jerusalem.
The biggest problem is at the western entrance to Jerusalem. Here the congestion shifted eastwards from the old Motza curve where three lanes merged into two, to the actual entrance to the city itself by the Bridge of Chords. This problem has now been exacerbated by the blocking of Shazar Boulevard just past the Binyanei Ha'Ooma International Conference Center as work begins on the city's grand new western entrance business center.
The situation will only ease in 2022 when an underground road will take traffic from the Bridge of Chords to the junction of Ben Zvi Street and Bezalel Street.
The problem in implementing transport and infrastructure plans in 21st century Israel does not stem from a lack of money but rather the extremely sluggish pace of planning and building bureaucratic procedures.
A new southwestern entrance to Jerusalem from Motza to Mount Herzl has been in the pipeline for 20 years but bids for construction have only just been closed and the road is scheduled for completion in 2023.
Back on Road 1, the Ministry of Transport failed to finish the crucial last kilometer when upgrading the rest of the Tel Aviv - Jerusalem highway. A tender is yet to be issued to build a flyover at Ganei Sakharov to replace the traffic lights there, while construction of a third lane in each direction between Ganei Sakharov and the western entrance to Jerusalem got bogged down in compensation talks for the homeowners in Lifta.
To be sure the problems of entering Jerusalem from the west are plagued by geopolitical and topographical challenges. Historically, until the Ottoman railway between Jaffa and Jerusalem opened in 1892, it was a two day journey on mules from the coast. The first trains could take as much as six hours to negotiate the hills up to Jerusalem.
The 20th century saw cars and buses become the preferred form of transport between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but the Israel-Arab conflict introduced new perils with Jewish convoys frequently attacked in the years prior to independence in 1948.
After independence Jerusalem was left at the end of a corridor surrounded by Arab lands to the north, east and south and only one way in - Road 1. Besieging Jerusalem, either literally as happened during the War of Independence, or cutting of the city for a short time when there is a major accident or breakdown on Road 1, is easily done.
After 1967, when Israel captured the territory surounding Jerusalem, a new major highway - Road 443 - was built to link the city to Tel Aviv. But many Israelis prefer to avoid the road because it cuts deep into the West Bank and security concerns from the second Intifada remain fresh in the memories of some.
Of course, if and when all the new road projects are completed by 2023, the vast numbers of new cars poring onto Israel's roads will probably mean that the congestion remains just as bad.
Public transport could be the answer but as this week's OECD Economic Survey of Israel points out the country has one of the worst public transport systems of any member state. The new Tel Aviv - Jerusalem railway, well behind schedule, should finally begin operating by the end of the year and the extension of the bus lane at the western entrance to the city will be extended down to the Motza flyover. But all this is too little, too late for a metropolitan area of more than 1 million.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on March 13, 2018
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