The Gozo tunnel vanity project – Ralph Cassar

That the Malta-Gozo undersea tunnel is a vanity project is crystal clear. A vanity project in both PL and PN’s manifesto – the platforms on which all MPs contesting on the PLPN tickets were elected.

On Wednesday 17 April 2019, Parliament unanimously approved a white elephant ‘permanent link’ between Malta and Gozo. Joseph Muscat has made this vanity project his. His brand of politics rests on glitz and glitter. This white elephant is just the right mega-project for him and fits into Ian Borg’s ‘getting things done’ mantra. Of course ‘getting things done’ is important, however the real issue is which things are getting done and how well thought-out these things are.

Back in February of this year, for instance, Muscat had said that the tunnel would be ready by 2024. I doubt Muscat’s predictions, even because of the shoddy estimates of the cost of an undersea tunnel. Costs of €300 million were bandied around. For similar projects, costs ran into the billions of euros. What’s more, the current designs suggest a two-lane tunnel for vehicles, with no emergency lanes. Just imagine a vehicle catching fire underwater. It would be yet another occasion for Muscat, Delia and assorted MPs to shed tears and build yet another monument.

What is also incredible is how some politicians manage to speak of issues in boxes, failing to make the connections between how their different policies contradict each other.

The specialists in contradictory policies must be the Nationalist Party. Recently we heard Adrian Delia speaking about ‘climate change’. In the same breath he speaks in favour of cheap, polluting fossil fuel and his party’s position in favour of more and more cars traveling between Malta and Gozo. The Labour Party’s MEPs speak about pollution and climate change in the European Parliament but it seems that what they say there does not hold in Malta. They position themselves as ‘progressives’ abroad while repeating the same tired, old, shallow mantras in Malta.

Rather surprisingly however, recently the message that the Malta-Gozo tunnel is a useless, vanity project seems to be gaining traction. Ironically one reason is government’s introduction of a fourth ferry, with all its issues and problems, crossing the Mġarr-Ċirkewwa channel. The introduction of this ferry has shown people that it is not the lack of a tunnel (or bridge) that is the real problem.

Without realising it, Government has (thankfully!) shot itself in the foot. The real issue is the availability and efficiency of ferry services. The Association of Gozitan Employees in Malta have questioned the need for the tunnel, citing traffic jams at Ċirkewwa as the real issue.They also call on detailed studies to be published. The Gozo Tourism Association insisted that there are other more sustainable options to the tunnel, specifically mentioning their longstanding insistence on the need for a fourth ferry and a fast ferry service.

Let us all remember that the tunnel will increase traffic in the Xemxija area, with most people commuting for work (frankly the most important category of people when it comes to mobility policy) still having to drive in congested roads to their workplace. The conflation of a tunnel with faster travel times on the roads is disingenuous. I reiterate AD’s proposals for the ferry service to Ċirkewwa to be supplemented as quickly as possible, with passenger-only fast services to the business and commercial areas in Malta, and dedicated bus services for ferry passengers.

As regards ferries, if Government is really forward-looking and as modern as it says it is, and if its sparse rhetoric on climate change is to be believed, it would make sure through the tendering process that the most modern, efficient and clean ferries are used for the Malta-Gozo crossing. Nowadays there are ferries which run on cleaner gas rather than diesel or fuel oil, reducing both carbon dioxide and noxious emissions. There are also electric ferries and hybrid ferries which combine fuel with electricity, again reducing emissions considerably. Scandinavia seems to be at the forefront of such technology.

Passenger ferry services must also be seen in a wider transport policy perspective. I cannot not mention the fact that Government is going against its own Transport Master Plan 2025. It is not encouraging sustainable modes of transport; it is not even considering ‘bus priority corridors’ or Bus Rapid Transit systems, which reserve lanes for the exclusive use of buses. It is not interested in providing safe infrastructure for commuters using bicycles or electric bicycles and in the process freeing up road space.

Transport policy means serious long-term planning. It means implementing strategies on which hundreds of thousands of Euros on public money were spent. It means having a vision based on sustainability and the quality of life and wellbeing of all. It means connecting ferry services to other public transport services.

For all the talk and propaganda, for all the Chris Saids and Franco Merciecas and their cross-party insistence on their pet subject, while it is expected that there are more openings and job opportunities on the larger island, that is Malta, this insistence on a tunnel ignores one important thing: for all their rhetoric the PLPN tandem have not managed to keep their promises of more jobs in Gozo.

Now one might say that they are making promises which are difficult to keep. If they are incapable of avoiding hyperbole and empty propaganda then that’s their fault. In the meantime people are realising that there are more sustainable, doable and reasonable mass transport options.

People are realising that ‘modern’ means pursuing technological solutions that avoid pollution as much as possible, reduce the need for traveling by car through congested roads and providing reliable ferry services.

Talking about tunnels when successive governments have failed to provide fast ferry services to the commercial centres of Malta is rich.

Ralph Cassar
Published in the Maltatoday – Wednesday 11 September 2019