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Transport solutions needed

The transport problem is worsening and will continue to worsen by the day as new imports of vehicles highly outnumber those that are taken off the road.

The high number of vehicles on the road relative to the size of the Maltese islands and the total length and quality of the roads make for excessive density.

The government indicated in the Budget speech for 2014 that it recognises the problem, and will not exclude any alternative proposal to tackle it. The government made a firm committment to start tackling it by building two major bridges. That should help the traffic flow and cut delays, which will be welcome, but it will not affect the vehicle density. Rather, density will continue to grow.

What the country needs is to find ways and means to encourage owners to use their cars less. Market forces have not been able to do that. Although cars in Malta cost more than they do, say, in Italy, imports continue flowing in at a very steady pace. The fact that more than half of cars imported annually are second-hand merely adds to the problem. They come somewhat cheaper but do not contribute adequately to the age profile of our stock of vehicles.

Other market forces are the prices of petrol and diesel. These depend totally on supply and demand in the rest of the world. Even when we purchase with the best expertise available and without add-ons in the form of suspicious commissions or outright bribery, we remain price takers.

It serves no genuine purpose to make the cost of such imports another political football, provided procurement is done efficiently and honestly.

These market forces have not discouraged purchases of additional vehicles. Nor, remarkably, have they received a response in the form of reduced use of cars. Cars are still used for the shortest of distances, however with much fuel costs. And appeals for car sharing fall repeatedly on deaf ears.

The introduction of a new public transport system has ended badly in its first stage. Arriva was a disaster in terms of its type of buses and its operational losses. It remains to be seen whether there will be viable new interest to take over the new transport company which temporaily replaced Arriva in the complicated deal that has to be worked out.

The country needs to encourage owners to use their cars less. Market forces have not been able to do that

But it has not been apparent that Arriva and its inheritor have pursuaded many – any? – car owners to use public transport instead of their own vehicles.

Improved service and comfort offered by the public transport system will remain important. Whether they will get cars off the road remains to be seen.

Resumption of the park-and-ride scheme should offer some relief to the density problem in core areas. It will be marginal, though welcome nonetheless.

All efforts point in the correct direction. Which is why Angelo Xuereb’s continued interest in offering a way to mitigate the problem of too many cars on the road is of rising interest.

Mr Xuereb, while expecting no personal gain, has taken a strong initiative, no doubt at a substantial cost to his group of companies, to try to come up with a viable proposal to transpose Malta into the modern age of transport by underground and rail.

Ironically the rail option was tried in Malta many decades ago but eventually became very uneconomical and had to be abandoned, even at its second attempt.

Times and technology are now very different. Mr Xuereb recently came up with a vastly-changed proposal, realistically expressing satisfaction that his earlier efforts had not been acted upon since he could now suggest something more feasible in terms of structure and cost.

Whether the project would also be feasible relative to cost will be the subject of much detailed analysis. I hope that the Transport Authority will be embarking on such an analysis soon, if it has not already started doing so.

There has to be a serious effort to introduce new modes of transport. Otherwise the transport situation will continue to deteriorate rapidly.

That will raise its already high socio-economic cost in terms of emissions, fuel outlays, accidents and road wear and tear. Remedial action will take years to implement.

Yet a start has to be made to bring along some easing of this very expensive and irritating problem. The mono-rail service as proposed by Mr Xuereb will probably be only one part of an intricate solution. Which is why early action is required.

The constraint of funds to finance large-scale projects will be a real challenge, yet one that has to be faced sooner or later.

Much more sensibly sooner, rather than later.

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