Transport reform nearing conclusion
Transport Minister Gatt said yesterday the transport reform affecting the different sectors was in its finals stages with negotiations with taxi owners drawing to a conclusion.
Speaking in Parliament during the Budget debate, Dr Gatt said 75 per cent of all travel on land was made by private cars and only 15 per cent by bus. This had to change with travelling by bus at least increasing to 30 per cent within a few years. This would be achieved through a system of incentives and disincentives.
The transport sector was no longer regulated through policies but through legal notices establishing regulations that ensured quality service. Under the regulations persons who had been found guilty by the courts of certain offences were excluded from working in the various sectors.
Referring to the public transport service reform, Dr Gatt insisted that the new bus fares schedule conformed to EU rules. He made his comment in Parliament, hours after a spokesman for the EU Transport Commissioner was quoted as saying that the Commission would look into the new fares structure. He also said that EU rules did not allow discrimination on the basis of nationality.
Dr Gatt denied that the issue was nationality and said the only qualification was residence.
Maltese residents would pay fares which were equivalent, and in some cases, cheaper than at present. Fares for non-residents would be only €12 for seven days, which was very competitive when compared to other tourist destinations.
The term residents did not mean Maltese people but all those who lived in Malta – Maltese and foreigners. The only qualification was residence, Dr Gatt said. Non-residents also meant Maltese who did not ordinarily live here.
The reason for this distinction was simple: the residents of Malta paid tax here and that funded the subsidy for lower fares for pensioners and students. This, he said, was a fair system and a logical one. People who paid taxes to subsidise the bus service should enjoy a lower fare.
All legal advice given to the government showed that the scheme conformed to EU regulations.
Earlier in his address, Dr Gatt said the government would be saving €3.5 million in subsidies per year for the next 10 years since the subsidy for new operator Arriva has been reduced to €4.6 million.
This was also the first time that Gozo would have a proper bus service – from 5.30 a.m. to 11p.m.
Malta would also have modern, air-conditioned low-floor buses which would drastically reduce the level of particulate matter in the atmosphere.
The new bus service would operate on an improved network with a number of new termini and interchanges. The new network would be 65 per cent bigger than the present one. All routes would operate between 5.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. with night services.
There would also be more information at bus stops and each bus would be equipped with a GPS locator to ensure that buses ran on time. The contract with Arriva even established a maximum waiting time, failing which, Arriva would be fined.
The new service, he said, would also mean better discipline from the bus drivers.
The new system would employ 920 persons of which 720 would be drivers. Arriva would invest €45-€50 million. Arriva had vast experience in public transport in different EU countries.
He said the proof of the pudding would be in the eating. There would inevitably be teething problems, but he was confident that the people would ultimately get the service they deserved.
It was not true that people would have to pay €2.50 to use the Floriana Park and Ride. This Park and Ride had to be competitive with other parking lots, he said.
Furthermore, one could pay €10 for seven days, which meant €2 for five days. If people shared their transport, as they were being encouraged to do, costs were very low.
However the costs for those who opted for the luxury of using their own car was also low.
The minister said it was not socially fair for people not to expect to be charged for using the Park and Ride. The Floriana Park and Ride on its own, cost taxpayers €650,000 and he was sure that money could be more deservedly used elsewhere.
He said 720 new parking places were to be provided in Valletta and Floriana.
The transport reform increased the number of hearses from 14 to 25, 41 more red mini vans and 340 other mini vans which had their seating capacity increased by 1,281.
Transport provided by coaches had also been liberalised and 50 new licences were to be issued to increase the number of taxis to 250. The electric taxi service would be completely liberalised by January.
Minister Gatt thanked Labour MP Joe Mizzi for the documentation he had forwarded him and which had been given to the police to investigate allegations on the issue of licences. People working with ADT had been immediately suspended. He said that registration tax on coaches was not calculated on invoices presented but was arrived at through other methodology.
Referring to construction and maintenance of arterial and distributive roads for which Transport Malta was responsible, Minister Gatt said that €14 million were spent in three years. By 2014, 55km of roads would have been constructed or maintained through the use of €175 million in EU funds.
He said that the reconstruction of the Marsascala bypass and Valletta Road, Żurrieq, were concluded on budget and on time. Work on the Marfa Mellieħa Road, Garibaldi and Council of Europe Roads in Sta Luċija, the Vizet roads and the road from Xewkija to Rabat in Gozo would start early next year. These eight km of roads would cost €42 million.
Other projects included the tunnel in Qui-Si-Sana, a 200-car park in Floriana and another at St James Ditch together with work on the Valletta terminus.
Minister Gatt said SmartCity was a private project and the government was not responsible for lease. A total of 12,000 square metres of offices had been finished a year before the target date and were now being leased.
Loans from banks were being used for capital projects in Valletta. The vision which the government had announced before the election was now being realised. Through this vision Valletta was being radically restored to its former glory with embellishment works to be carried out also at St Elmo after the necessary MEPA permits were given.
The old fish market and Boffa hospital would be transformed in to boutique hotels while Marsamxett would host a yacht marina.
Opposition spokesman on transport Joe Mizzi kicked off the debate saying the transport situation had kept deteriorating with the number of vehicles had almost tripled, with the resultant effects on people’s health and the environment. But the government had done nothing so that the roads coped with the load.
For every kilometre of travel the Maltese driver paid the highest cost in fuel and time lost in traffic jams. Over the past decades the authorities had raked in hundreds of millions of euros but spent less than three per cent on construction and maintenance of roads.
The government had never presented a strategic, holistic, integrated plan for transport. A strategic plan would have been drawn up after a serious long-term study involving all stakeholders.
On public transport, Mr Mizzi said public transport reforms had only meant higher bus fares.
Mr Mizzi said the government had received hundreds of thousands of euros from the EU for a holistic plan for transport, but to date not even a report had been published. There was hardly a database of roads’ state of repair. Things were a constant story of management by crisis and broken promises.
According to experts there was a severe lack of data for the drawing up of an integrated plan for transport incorporating all elements together.
The people were kept in the dark about Transport Malta’s accountability. Even on the contract with Arriva there was no transparency or inkling of how things would be done.
Mr Mizzi said the bus owners’ monopoly had been terminated with taxpayers’ money and was now being replaced by another one. The government had made a minimal promise that Arriva would create no waves until the elections, but nobody could be confident that there would be none later.
How would a free fuel market work on bus fares? Would it cover inefficiencies and waste, as was being done with utilities?
Turning to the maritime sector, Mr Mizzi asked what had been done on facilities to handle waste from ships, especially when cruise liners were expected to increase. And what about the maintenance of quays that were in a dangerous state?
Six years ago a government minister had said Malta would come to a standstill in the case of a massive oil spill. What had the Malta Maritime Authority done in the meantime? Did it have the resources for an immediate response? Was it supervising marine pollution, especially from oils, on a day-to-day basis?
Were the people protected against damages by dangerous cargo at sea? What had happened to the environmental impact assessment promised with regard to dumping sites at sea?
Mr Mizzi also spoke about the monopoly created by the privatisation of the yacht marina in Gozo, and asked if things were being monitored with regard to the accumulation of metals and oils on the seabed at the Vittoriosa marina over the past ten years.
In civil aviation it was only thanks to the 1997 certification of Malta and Air Malta to JAR 145 standards that the country was moving forward today in the aircraft maintenance sector. But it was sad to see the once-strong national airline in crisis.
Regarding Transport Malta, Mr Mizzi said it was unacceptable how people responsible for corruption had got away scot-free or even been promoted, and how people were being put into positions of responsibility without the necessary qualifications.
The rest of the debate will be carried tomorrow.