November 4th, 2007 08:46 EST
Palestinian Traffic Jams, Qalandiya Road Improvements
Jerusalem -- While Palestinian leaders negotiate complex issues on the road map to peace, the Palestinian people negotiate potholes on the road to the West Bank town of Ramallah. But that is changing.
The main highway connecting Ramallah to Jerusalem has been sadly neglected for years. The road has changed little since the days of the British Mandate for Palestine (1920-1948), and no major repairs have been undertaken to this narrow and badly potholed highway since Jordan resurfaced it before the 1967 war.
For 40 years, no government agency would take charge and repave the derelict highway because of its sensitive location. Just 14.4 kilometers from Jerusalem, this road runs past an Israeli military checkpoint with 7.5-meter concrete walls and beside the teeming Qalandiya refugee camp before continuing toward the seat of the Palestinian Authority government. For security reasons, the Israelis refused construction permits, and they were unwilling to finance the repairs themselves.
But in summer 2007, after nearly $2.5 million was allocated to the project, the bulldozers got started and the earth moved.
Two narrow lanes are being widened to four, with extra parking strips beside commercial zones to minimize obstructions. Drainage pipes and gutters are being installed. Before the winter rains bring mud and misery, this 1.6-kilometer stretch of road is scheduled to be upgraded completely and resurfaced. It will link up seamlessly with road projects paid for by German and Malaysian funds, resulting in an unprecedented smooth ride.
When workers contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) started ripping up this dreaded bottleneck, most commuters appeared thrilled, even though construction work snarled the traffic even further and the delays frayed drivers’ tempers.
“It must be one of the worst roads in the Middle East,” said Haithan Hamad, who commutes daily from Bethlehem, just 22 kilometers away -- if there are no detours. “It took me nearly five hours to get home during Ramadan,” he complained. “These repairs are long overdue, believe me.”
“Well, I see the Americans have come to our rescue,” said Jamila Salem, a mother of twins waiting at a bus stop on the route. Car owners like her often prefer to take the bus or even a taxi to protect their private vehicles from being damaged by the rutted roadway.
The notorious potholes in Qalandiya road can fill up with muddy water so deep it swamps a car’s headlights. “Some holes could swallow a whole motor scooter if you’re not alert,” Salem said. “It’s been a nightmare for as long as I can remember.”
SPEED, PRECISION -- AND JOBS
Fixing the road with speed and precision are high priorities for Zahi Gedoon, a structural engineer for the road contractors, Ch2M HILL. The Palestinian-born engineer is managing the entire project.
“This road serves a million people, so it is very heavily trafficked. The number of cars on the road has tripled and it is the main south-to-north artery for the West Bank,” he said. “Obtaining the permits was my biggest challenge, and a close second was managing traffic flow.”
He added, “Because of the political situation, no traffic police are assigned here, so our workers have to direct the traffic. Chaos happens when not all drivers do as they are told. It just takes one, and the rest will follow.”
Interrupted when the militant party Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, the long-awaited U.S. road improvement project got the final go-ahead after President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Hamas government because of its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
The USAID road work has created 40 local jobs and helps revive economic life in the West Bank, which was blighted by an 18-month aid boycott. For efficiency, funds are not channeled through the Palestinian Authority, but are paid directly to the contractors. Because it is engineered for local conditions and extremely heavy use, this section of road should last 10 years to 12 years before further resurfacing is required. The temptation to skimp on the roadbed in order to stretch available paving materials over a longer distance is commonplace, but this is not the case for this segment of road.
USAID is the principal U.S. agency charged with assisting countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty and engaging in democratic reforms.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Jan McGirk
USINFO Special Correspondent
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