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Western Wall cable car planners meet with developers despite High Court case

Jerusalem Development Authority holds two confabs for potential bidders; new tourism minister ‘still studying’ issue

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

Screen capture from a promotional video for the Jerusalem Old City cable car project showing an artist's impression of cars passing over the Hinnom Valley. (YouTube)
Screen capture from a promotional video for the Jerusalem Old City cable car project showing an artist's impression of cars passing over the Hinnom Valley. (YouTube)

Planners tasked with building a controversial cable car that will link West Jerusalem and the Old City have held a meeting for interested developers despite the fact that the High Court has not yet ruled whether planning approval of the project was legal.

With the aim of providing information about the project before a tender is formally issued, the Jerusalem Development Authority — a joint agency of the government and the Jerusalem Municipality — held its first meeting for potential bidders on Sunday. It was attended by major companies such as Dania Sibus and Y.D. Barazani. Another confab is planned for next week.

The cable car, for which the government has already budgeted NIS 200 million ($55.2 million), is planned to stretch from the First Station cultural complex in the south of the city to the Old City’s Dung Gate, which is the gate closest to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most venerated prayer site. There will be one stop along the way, on Mount Zion, and a maintenance depot in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.

The project’s backers insist that this will be a tourist attraction and, despite the fact that the Transportation Ministry has not been involved, will help relieve traffic gridlock caused mainly by tour buses.

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

The plan’s many critics say the cable car will turn Jerusalem’s most precious historic vistas into a theme park. An analysis of traffic data released in July appears to undermine the other major claim made for the cable car — that it will relieve traffic congestion along the Old City walls. The analysis suggests that an increase in shuttles would be a better, faster, and cheaper way of ferrying tourists from southern Jerusalem to the Dung Gate.

In July, in a last-ditch attempt to stop the project, opponents petitioned the High Court. Later that month, the court responded by ordering the government and all the other bodies involved to detail the “factual basis” on which the cable car meets the wording of the planning law — whether it really will “serve as a tourist attraction” and “make a real contribution to tourism in the area.”

The government has submitted an 81-page document reiterating arguments it has made in the past, to which the petitioners must now react.

An artist’s rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem’s First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy Jerusalem Development Authority)

The project was the brainchild of former tourism minister Yariv Levin (Likud) and was continued under his successor, Asaf Zamir (Blue and White). Zamir resigned earlier this month, and has been replaced by fellow party member Orit Farkash-Hacohen, a resident of southern Jerusalem.

A Transportation Ministry statement said that Farkash-Hacohen “entered office less than two weeks ago, during an extremely challenging time for the tourism industry” but had nevertheless asked the ministry’s professional team to bring her up to speed on a list of important topics, including the planned cable car, and was “still studying the issue.”

Orit Farkash-Hacohen. (Yanai Yechiel)

Traffic is a major issue at both ends of the planned cable car route.

In September, a private engineering consultant commissioned by the Jerusalem Development Authority to look at traffic management along the southern section of the Old City walls presented a report with various options and combinations that make clear that the cable car will not be enough to cater to all visitors to the area. The report was prepared for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is responsible for the greenbelt around the Old City walls. With the right to veto the entire project, it has conditioned its support for the cable car on a major reduction of other traffic and the creation of a pedestrian strip along the walls for visitors on foot and those disembarking from the cable car.

That traffic report was immediately attacked by the Moreshet Derech-MDTGU-Incoming Tourist Guide Association in Israel as showing “a complete lack of understanding of the consumer behavior of tourism and the currently accepted tour routes.”

An INPA spokesman told The Times of Israel that while it was only a preliminary document, “on the face of it, it reflects the goals set by the Authority for a significant reduction in vehicular traffic in the area and its transformation into a pedestrian-oriented one.”

The issue of traffic at the First Station area will be no less complex.

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

The cable car station will be built to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour at peak times in up to 72 10-person cabins. If only half of those people come by tour bus, that will mean the narrow David Remez Street will have to accommodate 30 buses per hour, each stopping for around 15 minutes to let everyone disembark.

Today, visitors to the First Station complex can park in a large, temporary lot accessed from Hebron Road. But that lot — where US President Donald Trump landed his helicopter when he visited the capital in May 2017 — is scheduled for massive residential and commercial development.

Architects have included the mandatory number of parking spaces for the buildings they are designing. Planners recently instructed them to add an additional 600 spaces for visitors, to compensate for those being lost to building.

Experimental drilling for a railway station at Jerusalem’s Old City, May 9, 2020. (Emek Shaveh)

Planners are also at the initial stages of discussing an idea for a five-story underground parking lot at the current entrance to the Liberty Bell Garden to accommodate 300 vehicles. One floor would be for buses and a youth hostel would be built on top.

The situation is further complicated by plans for a light railway line with a Khan Theater stop along a yet to be built extension of the existing Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line.

Local residents and cable car opponents fear that feeding so many transportation options into such a limited area will create a bottleneck between the main arterial Hebron Road, which brings in traffic from the south, and Keren Hayesod that leads to the capital’s downtown.

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