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Jerusalem gets light rail by 2009

Jerusalem Light RailIf you want to know why Jerusalem so desperately requires a mass transit makeover, say the builders of the city’s new light rail transit (LRT) system, all you need to do is “stand at the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street at 5 p.m. on a weekday.”

Jerusalem is not only Israel’s capital, but also its largest city, with a population of 800,000.

The first Jerusalem streetcars were proposed by Theodor Herzl, visionary of the modern state of Israel, on a visit to the city in 1898. Twelve years later, Palestine’s Ottoman rulers initiated a tender for the project, but it was canceled by the outbreak of WW I.

“Nearly a century late,” says Arie Sommer, Israel’s Tourism Commissioner for North and South America, “the first train is expected to make its maiden voyage along the 13.8-kilometer Pisgat Ze’ev-Mt. Herzl line by late 2009.”

The Old City, downtown and Yad Vashem will be the first tourist-frequented sites to benefit. Ultimately, a total of eight electric-powered light rail transit lines will whisk Jerusalemites and tourists from the Pisgat Ze’ev suburb in the north to the Malha mall at the city’s southern reaches.

Convenient stops served by feeder buses will serve the Old City’s Damascus Gate as well as downtown’s Mahane and Ben Yehuda shopping districts.

Jaffa Street, today a major artery for city buses, will be transformed into the city’s third pedestrian mall. Businesses will be invigorated and pollution reduced, according to LRT planners.

An additional line will be the much-anticipated high-speed rail link to Tel Aviv.

Although unfinished, the rapid transport system has already made its mark on the Jerusalem landscape with an imposing suspension bridge that now greets visitors as they enter the city.

The towering white structure designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and spanning Weizmann Blvd., will allow trains unhindered access to the permanently frenetic central bus station.

Gesher HaMeytarim has quickly become the capital’s latest — and most controversial — landmark, illuminated at night, with its 386-foot spire visible from far and wide.

Since 2007, public transport and taxi-only lanes have begun to turn the tide in favor of bus riders and those who prefer to cab it, particularly between the lively German Colony and downtown shops and restaurants, where parking is increasingly limited.

In future, cyclists and pedestrians will also reap the benefits of the system, say its planners, as cycling lanes and sidewalks become integral components of Jerusalem’s new public transportation landscape.

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