Construction of the new light rail system may be bogging Jerusalem down now, but it’s likely to transform the city’s dilapidated downtown into a thriving destination.
Stepping into one of the sleek and shiny new light rail vehicles set to zip through Jerusalem in the coming years, it’s hard to imagine the controversy the system’s roll out has engendered.
CityPass, the international corporation that is building and operating the Jerusalem light rail system, opened the doors to its high-tech transit depot last week and we joined the tour. We learned more than we wanted to know about the facility’s electricity system and the minutiae of how the maintenance staff cleans dusty wheels.
The highlight for us, though, was getting a chance to wander through the train cars themselves. Despite seats still wrapped in plastic, the enormous vehicles – five times the size of a normal bus – were immensely impressive and a stark contrast with the desert landscape around them (the depot is located just west of the northern Jerusalem satellite community of Pisgat Ze’ev).
Each car consists of five articulated sections and can seat 64 (with a total capacity of 250). There are LCD screens to announce stops and magnetic card readers throughout. Twenty-four cars out of a total of 46 have already been delivered so far.
Nevertheless, visiting the depot and seeing the cars all in one place gives one the feeling of being in a sci fi flick: could these state-of-the-art contraptions really roll through the historic, but now unfashionable center that represents Israel’s capital?
But that’s just the point.
Jerusalem used to have a vibrant downtown. But in recent years, since the opening of the Malcha Mall and the blossoming of the upscale Emek Refaim area, many shops have relocated, and tourists have left the downtown area.
True, the Nachlat Shiva area still sports some of the city’s better eateries, and nearby Heleni HaMalka Street is fast becoming an “in” spot for trendy bars and restaurants. But the overall picture remains bleak.
That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the light rail. Upon its completion, Jaffa Road will turn into a pedestrian-only walkway with the new fangled trolleys running down its center.
Freed from the narrow sidewalks and never ending traffic, the street will experience a resurgence. Already you can see a row of new cafes in the space of a few blocks, flanked by my favorite The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. A European-style walker-friendly promenade is just the ticket for revitalizing Jerusalem’s dilapidated core.
Getting there may not be so easy.
Jaffa Road is in the process of being dug up. Large swaths are currently blocked off entirely. Buses have been diverted to adjacent Nevi’im Street which is much too congested to handle the flow.
I’ve already lived through this once. When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the City’s main artery, Market Street, was dug up for nearly a decade during the building of the BART subway. Businesses folded and Market Street was off-limits for private cars and buses alike.
Eventually, however, construction was completed and the street now boasts a range of trendy shopping and entertainment facilities. The subway brings in visitors from all over the Bay Area, conveniently and quickly. No one discounts BART’s effectiveness today.
In the year’s to come, the same will undoubtedly be true for Jerusalem.
A project as grand and complex as Jerusalem’s light rail system has never been attempted before in Israel. After a peek at the vehicles that will, hopefully no later than 2010, rattle through town, I remain an enthusiastic supporter.