Ministers’ tunnel vision

Ralph Cassar

With our roads choked with traffic, and after messing up the public trans­port reform, ministers Austin Gatt, Giovanna Debono and Chris Said, and I suppose the Nationalist Party too, want us to clap and cheer at their proposal for a tunnel for 1,500 vehicles in each direction a day between Malta and Gozo. This is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of vehicles choking main arteries in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Guess what, this could cost anything between €150 million and over €1 billion. In the meantime cost-effective options and fast Gozo-Malta services were abandoned.

I am told that this proposal was first muted by a prospective Labour candidate, with the PN Gozo MPs scrambling to make the proposal their own. Unbelievable.

We were told time and again that the government, Dr Gatt in particular, managed to reduce the subsidies for public transport by a couple of million euros. Gozitans were also sold the story that the fast hydrofoil service to Sa Maison at €1 million or so a year operating costs was “not feasible”. They cannot provide a fast service to the very heart of Malta – Valletta and its environs – at a fraction of the cost and want us to just say yes to their latest brainwave. These are the same people who couldn’t even handle the terminal projects in Ċirkewwa and Mġarr – cost overruns galore and over 20 years to complete.

The proposal just confirms the government’s inability to lure certain types of investment to Gozo. IT companies and back office work where distances do not matter, for example. There are scores of other islands in the Mediterranean which are doing really well, attracting tourists the year round. The proposal is confirmation of the PN’s failures. It has given up.

As for Dr Gatt, he is no longer believable. In 2007 just before the 2008 elections, he came up with the usual fanfare surrounding his announcements, 20 projects for the regeneration of the Grand Harbour. From 2007 barely anything has changed. This same minister who used to say that alternative energy is just a dream, that Smart City would employ thousands and that tramlines are not feasible wants us to believe that spending anything up to €1 billion on a tunnel when a hydrofoil to Sa Maison, Valletta or even Sliema and Marsa (connecting to the main arteries and bus routes) will do just fine. What’s the point of having a ferry service just to the very edge of Malta with none at all to the heart of where businesses, workplaces and offices are?

Ms Debono and Dr Said will probably be competing to outdo each other. Selling pie in the sky is common to their way of doing politics.

Let’s just for a moment assume that the cost of the tunnel, which will probably never happen anyway, is half a billion euros. That sum could probably pay for free public transport at the point of use for the next couple of decades or so. The PN government is proposing that we throw away the money on a tunnel when even a fraction of the same amount can pay for fast sea services between the islands.

Wherever the money comes from, would half a billion euros pay for a light rail or underground system connecting all Malta’s main urban centres, with bus routes radiating out of the main stations? If the government finds the money then might as well use it for projects that would really improve the quality of life of the whole population. What about the recent ideas for projects by the Temi Zammit Foundation, which is a government funded foundation? Aren’t these projects which aim to reduce the unbearable traffic congestion and pollution from the tens of thousands which pass through the inner harbour areas each day more of a priority?

Like Silvio Berlusconi’s bridge over the straits of Messina, where local train services have been left to deteriorate and money channelled into the white elephant project instead, the tunnel proposal only serves to inflate the already over inflated egos of PN ministers.

Of course any criticism of this pre-election gimmick will attract the usual attacks from those who are gullible enough not to realise that there are plenty of other options for Gozo which this government itself has abandoned and never developed. The masters of spin are at it again.

Mr Cassar is spokesperson  for energy, transport and industry, Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party.