Transportation Ministry ‘not involved’ in $55.2m cable car plan to cut traffic

Mass transit plan strongly backed by tourism minister and Jerusalem mayor; Jerusalem Development Authority says ‘Transportation Ministry a partner’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Artist's impression of the cable car station to be located next to the First Station complex in Jerusalem.
Artist's impression of the cable car station to be located next to the First Station complex in Jerusalem.

In a curious twist to a controversial government proposal for a cable car that is being promoted as part of a mass transit plan for Jerusalem, The Times of Israel has been told that the Transportation Ministry is not involved in the project.

The project led by the Tourism Ministry, and for which the government has already budgeted NIS 200 million ($55.2 million), aims to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour at peak times in up to 72 10-person cabins between the First Station commercial complex in southwest Jerusalem and the Old City’s Dung Gate, near the Western Wall.

The 1.5 kilometer (one mile) route, billed to take less than five minutes, is designed to cross the historic Hinnom Valley and to stop at Mount Zion, before continuing over the Palestinian village of Silwan to its final destination — the still-to-be built Kedem Center — a large, multi-story complex that the right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build on top of the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate, just outside the Old City walls.

The project is strongly backed by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and is being planned by the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint body of the government and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion celebrates his victory with supporters at his campaign headquarters, after winning the Jerusalem municipal elections on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They say that the project will provide an environmentally friendly solution to traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls and that it will dovetail into Jerusalem’s evolving mass transit system of buses and light rail routes.

These claims form part of the submission to the National Planning Council in October, which approved the project at the end of January, and which will weigh final approval after reviewing public comments over the coming months.

The best solution?

The traffic advantages of the project have been reiterated at public meetings, where the JDA official in charge, Aner Ozeri, has said that in the absence of realistic and immediate alternatives for relieving congestion around the Old City walls, the cable car is the best solution, requiring little land and able to meet the challenges of the hilly terrain.

Opponents of the plan, some of whom are working on submissions before the current 60-day public objection period, which ends on April 2, say this is a poorly-thought-out, Disneyesque scheme that will scar the picturesque valley landscape with 15 massive pylons and sully unique views of the Old City and its walls — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Artist’s impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley, from a promotional video posted to YouTube.

Much of the argument, though, revolves around practicalities and traffic — city congestion levels are already high at peak hours and residents in the south of the city worry that the project will simply shift all the buses and cars from the Old City basin to the First Station area, which is located just off the (already congested) Hebron Road, the main entrance to the city from the south.

A JDA spokesman said that while the Tourism Ministry was promoting the project, “the Ministry of Transportation is a partner in planning, and the cable car program is synchronized with the rest of the city’s transportation and infrastructure.”

Transportation Ministry: ‘We have no information’

However, when lawyer Eitay Mack, acting for the left-wing NGO Emek Shaveh, wrote in mid February to the ministry official in charge of freedom of information with a request for details about congestion relief alternatives that might have been discussed, the official, Ayala Danino, replied, “We have no information on the cable car project. This is a tourist project not a transport one.”

Contacted by The Times of Israel Wednesday, a Transportation Ministry spokesperson confirmed, “This is a tourist cable car, and therefore the Ministry of Transportation is not involved in the project.”

Lawyer Eitay Mack speaks during a ceremony in April 2015. (Screen capture: YouTube)

“That left us in shock,” Mack said. “What on earth is happening here?”

A JDA presentation in Hebrew, which has been shown at public gatherings, has pictures of various transportation alternatives that were ruled out but does not specify why.

Ozeri has said that options for a train or light rail would take too much time.

Mack insisted this week that the public had the right to know about a project that would have major ramifications, not only for transport in areas such as the Old City, the German Colony and the city center, but also for the light rail project, which is at various stages of implementation throughout the city, the Egged bus service, taxi services and private vehicle traffic.

In an appendix submitted to the National Planning Council last year, Tel Aviv traffic consultants hired by the JDA noted that a free shuttle service already operating from the First Station to the Western Wall is hardly used, but did not say why.

Light rail ‘four times costlier’ than cable car

The only other option the surveyors mentioned was to construct a special branch of the light rail, part of it underground, whose main advantage would be “visual” but which would cost nearly four times as much as a cable car  — NIS 800 million ($220 million) — and would take twice the time (three years) to build, while disrupting other, already functioning light rail lines.

Aner Ozeri of the Jerusalem Development Authority. (Facebook)

The same paper said that six parking bays for charter buses would be created along the narrow David Remez Street, where the First Station and the Khan Theater are located, to cope with an estimated seven to 11 buses per hour, each of which would be limited to an eight minute stay.

For car parking, the surveyors placed heavy reliance on “a few hundred” parking spaces being made available to the public at a large parking lot behind the First Station that is slated for upmarket residential development.

Public parking needs ‘will be examined’

A spokesperson for the Jerusalem Municipality could not give any detail about public parking spaces at the First Station in the long term. Planning was still at an early stage for three projects — the cable car, a new light rail line and the parking lot — and public parking still needed to be examined, the spokesperson said.

The narrow street leading to the First Station, shown on the right. (Google instantstreetview)

Mack accused the Tourism Ministry and JDA of spending “millions” on a project that has “not been thought through” and of basing its calculations on a “superficial” traffic survey which raised problems but failed to provide solutions.

Mack said he has been trying to obtain further information about the cable car since August.

A long correspondence, first with the Tourism Ministry and then with the JDA, ended on January 2 with a reply from the latter saying he had asked for too much, and requesting that he be more specific, before going on to address the list of his requests by saying that the authority was not obliged to release any information.

Publicizing economic feasibility report could ‘disrupt progress’

The JDA referred Mack to public information that he had already seen and refused to release an economic feasibility study on the grounds that it contained commercial data and that publication could “disrupt the project’s progress.”

Asked about this, a JDA spokesman told The Times of Israel this week that publication of the study could “harm” the tender process.

Hitting a dead end, Mack submitted a petition to the Jerusalem District Court on behalf of Emek Shaveh and several concerned individuals accusing the Tourism Ministry, the JDA, and those responsible for freedom of information at both bodies of unreasonably withholding information.

But the court has set a fall date for a response — which Mack fears could be too late.

“The public has access neither to a transport plan nor to an economic plan,” Mack said. “This is a populist project, which hasn’t been thought through and risks becoming a white elephant.”

Tour guide: ‘Start by enforcing existing parking rules’

Amos Garbatski, a veteran licensed tour guide who is active in Moreshet Derech — the Tour Guide Association for Incoming Tourism — charged that those behind the cable car “have no idea about tourism.”

Amos Garbatski, a licensed tour guide and board member of Moreshet Derech – the Tour Guide Association for Incoming Tourism. (Facebook)

Rather than “shift the problem elsewhere,” the simplest way to deal with congestion around the Old City walls and keep the traffic moving was to enforce existing no-parking rules with traffic supervisors, impose fines and use shuttles.

Shuttles had been used successfully years ago during the peak periods of Hol Hamoed Pesach and Succot.

“On Mondays and Thursdays [when bar mitzvah ceremonies are held at the Western Wall], you see private cars parked near the Dung Gate and not a policeman in sight,” he said.

“Go the Garden of Gethsemane and there are bays for three to four coaches to let tourists off or let them get on. In between, they’re supposed to drive somewhere else, but they just stay there, parked. A NIS 500 ($140) fine would solve that.”

Garbatsky said it was “nonsense” to think that group guides would battle morning traffic jams to bring a busload of tourists to the First Station.

He would not even consider splitting up groups into cable cars, he added, for fear that he would not find them again at the other end.

Karaites oppose cable car on religious grounds

In a separate twist to the cable car saga, the Haaretz newspaper revealed last month that those opposing the cable car plan include the ancient Karaite community, which lives according to the precepts of the Hebrew Bible but not of the Oral Law codified in the Talmud. The cable car is planned to pass over the Hinnom Valley, where there is a Karaite cemetery.

The Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem, photographed on March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

The Karaites are objecting because according to their interpretation of Jewish law, it is forbidden to stand under a roof where the dead are buried and for these purposes, a cable car is equivalent to a roof.

Shlomo Gaver, director general of the Karaite community, told The Times of Israel that the cemetery had hundreds of graves, some stretching back to the second Temple period, as well as an ancient burial cave, and that all are marked under Karaite ownership in the land registry.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed