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Light at the end of the Gozo tunnel

Chris Said, Parliamentary Secretary for Consumers, Fair Competition, Local Councils and Public Dialogue, expands on his proposal for a Malta-Gozo tunnel link.

Subjecting initiation of major projects and initiatives to study, thought and reflection is not, as may be perceived, procrastination. Rather, it is the responsibility with which we, as leaders, are entrusted that makes us look at the many different aspects or potential ramifications of any such project, be they economic, social, environmental or any other perspective of public concern and interest.

One such matter of national, and, particularly, of Gozitan importance, is the issue of my home island’s connections with Malta. Ever since my childhood, travel between the islands has always been a major fact of life for us Gozitans. Major improvements were made along the years through the construction of Mġarr harbour, better and more ships plying the channel and enhanced terminal facilities. This has done a lot to mitigate the discomfort and daily travail residents of Gozo have to face when needing to travel to Malta for study, work, health or any other circumstance that might arise. Travelling daily, as I do on the 6 a.m. ferry from Gozo, I meet the same community of commuters whose working or study day is marked up by at least an extra two hours of travelling time a day. And that is optimistic! On the eve of popular weekends, an extra two or three hours at Ċirkewwa, waiting to board behind the long queues of trippers, is the norm.

The same applies to the trippers themselves, Maltese or foreign, often daunted by the long waiting and travelling times involved and the excessive dependence on the ferry service.

This is not, however, the only impact the double insularity of Gozo has. All activity in Gozo has by necessity to revolve around the ferry schedule and availability. Hotels have to cater for the transfer of guests with the timetable in mind. Industrial and agricultural production also has the added burden of having to be taken to Malta.

Government subvention has gone a long way in alleviating this problem but it is just not enough for Gozo and its people to enjoy a level playing field. The economy, society and the well being of the people of Gozo deserve more.

So what can be done about it?

Over the years, there have been many possible solutions bandied about, none of which without their due share of controversy or debate.

As far back as 1968, the idea of a causeway, a bridge, had been vaunted. Then, the Gozo civic council, an exercise in local democracy the success of which was immeasurable until its closing down by the government in 1973, had even presented a model of such a bridge for public viewing at the International Trade Fair of Malta in Naxxar. There had been a lot of resistance to this idea, which might then have seemed to be a bit too avant-gardish for the time.

In 1971, the government had also got from the Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency of Japan a study on the possibility of a link road between the two islands. A preliminary survey report was eventually produced in March 1972, the findings of which we shall need to return to later.

Since then, no progress was made on the link road option but the ensuing years saw the development of inter-island traffic reaching new proportions, with Gozo now becoming a popular tourist destination both for Maltese holiday makers and also for foreign travellers who see Gozo as a destination in its own right.

The mid-1990s proposal for an airstrip, able to handle international traffic albeit of a city hopper nature, emanated from this demand while the limited air service provided intermittently by helicopter, and now by seaplane, while welcome enhancements to the ferry service, cannot handle the sheer volume of traffic that has become the lifeline of Gozo.

The airstrip never materialised, mainly for environmental reasons, but it would not have been the ideal solution anyhow. While making it easier for more upmarket tourists to fly to Gozo directly, it would have done nothing to address the daily problems faced by commuters and by Gozitan producers and suppliers.

The most comprehensive solution remains that of a road link and this takes us back to the findings of the Japanese survey. There are two options for such a road link: over or under, or, more simply put, either a bridge or a tunnel.

The “over” option, or a bridge, was the first to be considered. However, a bridge, while serving well the purposes for which it would have been constructed, has its disadvantages. Besides its visual environmental impact, drastically affecting the familiar outline shape of our islands, it would, by its very presence, constitute a disturbance, if not an outright hazard, to shipping and boating activity in a particularly active area of our coastlines. It would also have a negative impact on the tranquillity and isolation enjoyed by Comino, which would end up having the bridge’s structure dominating its skyline. The substructure of the bridge, with columns or pilings repeated at least every 120 metres, would involve a considerable disturbance of the seabed and, possibly, even of the ground in Comino, an environmental side effect, undesirable by any standard.

The “under” option – the tunnel – thus presents itself almost automatically as being the best one.

While satisfying all the requisites, which demand a better and more constant and reliable link between the islands, the tunnel option presents advantages in many areas. The immediately apparent advantage is the environmental one. A tunnel would not present any negative visual impact, nor would it disturb the seabed or Comino’s character.

The tunnel would be dug 50 metres below the seabed and navigation between the two islands would not be hampered in anyway. Crossing times would become negligible as Gozo would become just an extension to existing road networks while infrastructural services, such as energy and communication connections, could easily be routed through this tunnel, reducing their vulnerability to damage and facilitating access to them for maintenance. Meteorological disruption of inter island travel would become something for the history books.

Such an option, however, gives rise to several questions of a technical and feasibility nature. Preliminary reports and surveys have shown such a project would not present any insurmountable difficulties. The sea between the islands is never more than 30 metres at its deepest point where the tunnel would pass. Naturally, this would not be a case of just going ahead and digging. A number of more advanced studies and surveys would be required to test the geology and other factors engineers planning such a major project would need to have in hand before even the most preliminary of plans can be initiated.

Another possibly prohibitive question would be the cost. Considering the length of the tunnel and basing it on a per metre cost, working on the average derived from a large number of such projects implemented over the past 30 years, we would be looking at an investment in the region of €150 million for a double tube, dual lane tunnel, that is, two lanes each way. This would naturally include all the necessary safety features indispensable for such a project.

Prima facie this would appear to be an astronomically prohibitive figure but when placed against the backdrop of the reality of what is spent by commuters at present on the existing ferry service, cutting 25 per cent for recurrent maintenance and factoring in a prudent contingency, the capital expenditure incurred could be recouped in under 15 years. These figures could become even more positive if one considers that the improved comfort and facility of this mode of inter-island travel would generate an increase in traffic and, hence, revenue.

What would be the benefits of finally having a non-anachronistic link between the islands? It would contribute significantly to coherence with established EU policies such as the freedom of movement of people, goods and services, helping to homogenise the national economy further without having any appreciable qualitative or quantitative divergences between regions in the country. The economy in Gozo has a considerable potential that could only be maximised if a transport link sufficient for these needs is finally concretised, the pun being only half intended.

The 2009 Gozo Regional Committee report states that the economy of Gozo has the potential to net generate over 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years whereby the excessive dependence on public sector employment on the island could then be reduced, a target which would also be important for the national economy as a whole. This transport link is a “must” if such a growth is to be envisaged, expected and sustained.

I, therefore, hereby call for the implementation of this project, this artery for the island of Gozo, with its ancillary benefits for the national economy as a whole. I propose the immediate launching of in-depth technical and financial assessments of such a key project in order that the best model for funding and actuation be found, be it state funded, maybe with EU support, or through private investment within a publicly created framework that would render it attractive to the right developers and investors.

This was my dream as a young boy for whom a trip to Malta was a rarity, as a student whose daily trip to and from the University was an added hurdle which had to be surmounted and as a daily commuter as a Gozitan worker whose office is across the water from my family. As a member of the government, it is now more than just a dream. It is my proposal.

I shall, therefore, be presenting this proposal, with all existing preliminary studies, to the government I form part of, with a view to more in-depth and feasibility studies being held in order for this project to be embarked upon for the benefit of the Maltese islands.

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