By Josh Hasten
JERUSALEM — Jerusalem has started construction on parts of a three billion shekel (approximately $870 million) major highway that will eventually serve as a ring road around Israel’s largest city, with the goal of significantly alleviating traffic throughout the capital. At the same time, planners hope that the project will provide easier access for those entering or passing through the city from all sides.
Construction has already commenced on the southern and central sections of the eastern spur of the highway, which consists of a three-pronged, 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) stretch of pavement known as “The American Road.”
When completed, the road, which will include bridges and tunnels, will stretch from the Arab neighborhood of Tzur Baher in the southeast to the Naomi Shemer Tunnel in the northeast on Mount Scopus.
The road got its name as a result of an American company that planned and began construction in collaboration with the Jordanian government in the 1960s.
However, the plan was never completed after Israel retained full control of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War.
Israeli authorities did build parts of the southern section, which today consists of a small and barely functional narrow road. The cost of the eastern spur is estimated at 860 million shekels ($250 million).
The American Road project, with two-thirds scheduled to be completed in 2021 and the final part to begin that same year, is under the auspices of the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corp., the main construction arm of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Ministry of Transportation.
Dan Shoshani, a spokesman for Moriah, said, “this important project is the biggest infrastructure project undertaken by Jerusalem in the last few years.”
He said that it “will serve residents from all communities, both Jews and Arabs, and will lessen traffic significantly.”
Shoshani stressed that the American Road will have the greatest impact on the Arab residents who live in the eastern side of the city.
Not everyone is convinced of the merit of the project or the motivations behind it.
Sari Kronish an architect with “Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights,” an Israeli human-rights organization of professional planners and architects, said in an email:
“The central part of the [American] road was originally built during Jordanian control to connect villages in the outskirts of Jerusalem to each other, but it is now being seized for use by thru traffic, specifically settler traffic.”
Bimkom, along with others, says that the project is going forward specifically to provide easier access to the city for residents of Judea and Samaria, but isn’t being built in a way to fully serve Arab populations.
Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Arieh King disagrees. He said that “the road will positively impact the Arabs of Jerusalem more than any other population.”
“Today, if you are an Arab in Tzur Baher, for example, and want to get to other Arab neighborhoods further north like Jabel Mukaber or Silwan, you have to go west, north and then back east again using Hebron Road — a narrow thoroughfare with many traffic lights.
“This new highway is being planned with access from all of these neighborhoods, which will significantly reduce travel time.
“The bottom line is that for the Arabs, having access to their neighborhoods will be an incredible addition to their standard of life.”
King also detailed how the American Road will connect to other major Jerusalem arteries in order to eventually form the loop around the city. He noted that the second stage of the plan is to build a tunnel connecting the southeast neighborhood of Har Homa to Gilo in the south and the Begin Highway in the west, with Begin serving as the Western spur on the loop.
An expansion of the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem tunnel road is already underway, leading into the city from the south, which also meets up with Begin.
King said that the northern spur of the loop will form a direct connection between Highway 1 (the Tel-Aviv Jerusalem road), allowing for motorists to travel directly to the Dead Sea without having to cross through Jerusalem and thus avoid sitting in traffic.
Of those who oppose the construction, King said, “I have met with tens of Arabs, including leaders who are in favor of the project. I didn’t find one Arab who is against this plan. In addition to traffic alleviation, this will increase the value of apartments and real-estate [in the eastern parts of the city].”
King’ hopes the project will encourage more Jews to live, work and tour in eastern areas of the city.
“There are no Jews there. Once you have a highway with facilities such as shopping centers and industrial areas, it will be easier to convince Jews to move there.”
Sari Kronish counters: The city has it wrong when it comes to possible development alongside the historic segment of the road. “The development rights that are proposed include a problematic ratio of housing to other uses, thereby not providing a solution to the housing crisis and also not really offering the necessary stimuli for other forms of development.
“This approach is indicative of the way Israeli planning policy toward Palestinian East Jerusalem in recent years: They focus on all urban land uses except for housing, while the housing crisis continues to surge.
“And if they have to address housing, it is done in a way that is de facto unimplementable.”
While King stressed the importance of development opportunities alongside the road, he thinks that the potential construction components are “a byproduct of project.”
“The main goal is the road, with similar loop-highways existing in many other metropolitans around the world,” he said.
“We want Jerusalem to be one big united city under Israeli sovereignty.”
“Those who oppose the road are de facto calling to keep Arabs stuck [both literally and figuratively] in an underdeveloped area.”