Friday, April 06, 2007

No Go: Jerusalem Tram Plan Trammelled?

Getting around inside Jerusalem unobstructed is almost impossible, except on foot. Drivers face sudden improvised barriers, detours, closed lanes, potholes,and shallow ditches. An ambitious one-way road system keeps getting rejigged and rerouted before drivers can work it out. Local cynics insist that it's designed to enrage and frustrate car owners so they'll be willing to park and ride the city's new Light Railway once it is up and running in 2009. For now, parked cars, straddling the curbs, block most sidewalks. The city buses run sporadically, are too wide for narrow inner streets, and must share the roadway with enormous tourist coaches. Reliable public transportation--if it can be kept safe from attackers-- would be a godsend for Jerusalemites. Envisioned by Theodor Herzl back in 1900, a city rail transport plan was finally signed into existence a century later by then-mayor Ehud Olmert. He's now the Prime Minister, and the least popular man in the country.

Citypass consortium is contracted to build and run the long-awaited light rail project in Jerusalem.If it can ease the traffic snarls and improve the humour of impatient drivers, that will be viewed as a minor miracle. Tempers have been fraying for months as construction workers get stuck in. With streets torn up and constantly re-piped and repaved, no one seems to know how to avoid bottlenecks.

But there is yet another stumbling block. Two French companies, Veolia Transport and Connex, hold contracts for the tramway's construction and are being sued in Paris. It's political, with suggestions that the city fathers plan an apartheid railway, with separate carriages likely for Arab-Israelis, and severe restrictions against any Palestinian riders. Prosecutors allege that "Israel was exploiting international and regional crises to create a new permanent reality in Jerusalem and its vicinity, expanding the settlements, building the separation fence and constructing the light rail." The pro-Palestinian plaintiff insists that a conspiracy is underway to "turn the settlements that are located close to Jerusalem into Jewish neighborhoods of the city, facilitating transport to and from these settlements and encouraging more people to live there" because of the quick link to downtown.

Creating Israeli strongholds in Arab parts of Jerusalem will further isolate the east Jerusalem neighborhoods from the West bank, the lawyers charge. The project will expropriate land from Arabs for parking lots and some rail routings.

Under union pressure, a Dublin firm called Veolia Transport Ireland has balked at the project. It abruptly cancelled plans to train Israeli personnel.Dublin's union drivers refuse to allow their transport system to be used by drivers destined for a new tram system linking the illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. “It’s not going to happen”, trade union official John Flannery said.

In November the Dutch ASN Bank decided to divest from Veolia until the company respects the relevant UN resolutions. Meanwhile, the streets of Jerusalem are in disarray as railway workers pickaxe the pavement again and again.

Graffiti daubed on construction sites for the tramway in downtown Jerusalem. Snaps by JMcG

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