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Fast ferry service hits turbulence

Few could argue convincingly that a catamaran service connecting Gozo to Malta is not long overdue. At present Gozo Channel, the sole provider of ferry services between the Maltese islands, provides a regular ferry service that meets some of the requirements of travellers. But for many, especially Gozitans, the problem of efficient transport connectivity persists.

The way Gozo Channel handled the tender to recruit a partner to provide a fast ferry service is nothing short of shambolic. The original tender was meant to close in July 2017 but was extended to January 2018. Following a legal objection by Virtu Ferries, after Gozo Channel announced it had selected Islands Ferry Networks as its preferred partner to operate a 350-passenger catamaran service, the tender process was ‘completely suspended’ and the closing date extended to May 24.

Not only was the tender process tainted with operational inefficiencies, but many questions as to whether the EU-wide public service obligation tender process was in accordance with the strict competition and procurement rules remain unanswered.

The first question that needs to be answered is whether the tender document was drawn up in a way to strengthen Gozo Channel’s monopolistic position in providing ferry services between the islands and to deter competition by a new operator.

Virtu Ferries, who have a 30-year record of operating fast ferry services in Malta and abroad, insist that according to EU rules, the Ministry of Transport was required to treat economic operators equally without discrimination. They add that the way the tender was designed “clearly favoured State company Gozo Channel to the detriment of other operators wanting to compete for the same public service”.

It will be up to the court and the EU competition authorities to determine whether Virtu Ferries’ claims are indeed justified. But a second equally important question remains unanswered. Were the preferred partners Islands Ferry Network the most qualified out of the seven bidders to join Gozo Channel in operating the fast ferry service?

It will be up to the Public Contracts Review Board to answer this question as doubts persist on whether Gozo Channel complied fully with public procurement regulations in the process of selecting a catamaran operator partner. The Gozo Ministry refused to answer questions put to it by this newspaper. It also failed to justify the selection board’s decision on the preferred bidder.

The fact that the chairman of the evaluation committee was the former chairman of the Malta Gaming Authority and the present CEO of the MFSA does not guarantee that the selection process was correct from the beginning.

Malta’s reputation for rectitude and transparency with some EU institutions remains at best shady. Even more important, local taxpayers want their money to be used most judiciously by public companies including Gozo Channel.

In this particular tender, it is in the public interest that the fast ferry operator does not only offer the best financial package for the provision of the transport services but also has the right experience to operate an essential service safely and efficiently.

The investigations by the local Public Contracts Review Board as well as by the EU competition authorities must address the serious doubts that many ordinary people have about this fast ferry procurement process.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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