Gozo tunnel depends on maximising car movements – Carmel Cacopardo

The Gozo-Malta undersea tunnel is a tunnel for cars, not for people. It is, in fact, the antithesis of the underlying theme of the National Transport Master Plan for 2025.

It is pertinent to remember that the Transport Master Plan, drawn up in 2016 by the present government, emphasises that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has, to date, generally been short-term in nature. This “has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.”

Instead of presenting a rigorous policy addressing private vehicle restraint, the government and its agencies are continuously seeking to reinforce car-dependency through the encouragement of excessive investments in the local transport infrastructure. This investment aims at increasing the capacity of our roads and consequently dances to the tune of the car lobby. Also, knowing that emissions originating from transport are currently the major contributor to carbon emissions in Malta, encouraging car-dependency is directly opposite to the climate change policy which any sensible government should follow at this point in time.

The Gozo-Malta undersea tunnel is no exception. This week’s press conference by Ministers Ian Borg and Justyne Caruana emphasised the fact that the brief for would-be investors is a tunnel that should have a capacity of 9,000 vehicle movements on a daily basis. This is three times the current movement of vehicles between the islands and is in line with the projections of the 2015 E-cubed study commissioned by Transport Malta and the Gozo Business Chamber dealing with an economic cost benefit analysis of the available strategic options.

The toll to be charged – and, consequently, the tunnel’s economic performance – is dependent on generating the maximum traffic possible. Maximising traffic underpins the very existence of the tunnel. This runs counter to the basic objective of the National Transport Master Plan 2025 which – in crystal clear language – spells out the reduction of cars from our roads as the long-term objective of Malta’s National Transport Policy.

The toll which will eventually have to be paid is also dependent on the costs to be incurred in the development and the operation of the tunnel. Reports on this week’s press conference do not indicate any estimated cost which is, at this stage,  understandable in view of the fact that the design of the tunnel is not yet cast in stone. There is, however, a specific reason for this: geological information of relevance has been compiled very recently and it will undoubtedly require additional studies focusing on problem areas, which studies will have a significant bearing on both the actual design as well as the eventual cost and consequently the toll expected.

This type of projects very rarely follow estimated costs; the tunnel linking the Marsa and Delimara powers stations in Malta, for example, overshot its projected costs by around 100 per cent due to the absence of adequate geological information. As a result, parts of the tunnel caved its construction, necessitating a substantial amount of additional work, including redirecting parts of it.

On the other hand, expenditure on the Channel Tunnel linking Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles near Calais exceeded the projected estimates by around 80 per cent, notwithstanding the availability of detailed geological studies.

At the end of the day, the actual costs of the tunnel will be anything between 600 million and one billion euros, depending on the actual design as well as the geological issues encountered below the Gozo Channel.

If the tunnel materialises, it will result in significant environmental damage in both Malta and Gozo, including the obliteration of the troglodytic village at l-Għerien in the limits of Mellieħa.

There are other solutions which can adequately address the mobility between Malta and Gozo. It does however require thinking outside the box and focusing on the real issue: people mobility. This would require a bold initiative of addressing head-on car-dependency in both Malta and Gozo. Until we take the decision to start shedding our car- dependency, however, no solution can be achieved.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 12 January 2020