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A tunnel vision for Gozo - Victor Paul Borg

Slow boat to Malta: The Gozo-Valletta service was discontinued in 2015 but it was “so much better than taking the ferry to Ċirkewwa and then frustratingly driving for 45 minutes”. Photo: Myriam Thyes

Slow boat to Malta: The Gozo-Valletta service was discontinued in 2015 but it was “so much better than taking the ferry to Ċirkewwa and then frustratingly driving for 45 minutes”. Photo: Myriam Thyes

Transport Malta’s report into the tunnel to Gozo can be described as 24 pages of assertions and conjectures. The report is ostensibly a ‘project description’ intended to form the basis for formulating the terms of reference for the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but the ‘project description’ is more telling in its omissions. By the end you come off with the feeling that the tunnel supposedly described still remains a generic and preliminarily desk-modelled construct.  

For example, while we learn that earth in “excess of one million cubic metres” would be excavated, we also learn of two options for the tunnel route, either above or below the layer of blue clay. The deeper route would obviously produce more excavated earth than the shallower alternative, as well as a different type of excavated rock and material (the shallow route would not excavate much of any clay, for example). And, considering that disposing of the excavated earth is the greatest environmental issue, how can the EIA be formulated, let alone be completed, without more accurate information on quantity of gouged earth and geological strata through which the tunnel would bore?

Likewise, detailed descriptions of tunnel dimensions (width of roads, intervals of lay-bys, width of buffer area) are illustrated by a figure of a “typical road tunnel cross-section” – a typical tunnel, not the tunnel to Gozo – making the details generic and conceptual.

Detailed studies remain absent. In fact geological and seismic studies are ongoing, and it’s inexplicable that a ‘project description report’ is put out for public consultation before completion of studies that can radically influence the course of the tunnel, even extinguish the idea of a tunnel to Gozo.

The same applies to wider feasibility studies. On page 8 of the report we read that “in early 2018, Transport Malta commissioned a Financial Model for the project to be carried out. This study will  assess  the  financial  feasibility  and  potential  financing options  for  the  proposed  fixed  link  between Malta and Gozo. An updated Cost-Benefit Analysis shall also be undertaken.” Yet on page 1 we read that according to a “preliminary analysis” in 2012 “a tunnel link between Malta and Gozo would be feasible”.

The tunnel is largely predicated on projections of growth in volume of traffic between the islands. Statistics show that an average of 3,000 vehicles daily crossed between the islands in 2010, growing to nearly 4,000 in 2015, in turn projected to grow to 9,000 by 2030.

These projections suggest that volume of traffic in Gozo will grow substantially. That would be unacceptable to Gozitans – mutterings that congestion in Gozo has become unbearable is already a common lament among Gozitans.

Gozo already has the dubious distinction of having the highest car ownership per capita in Europe, if not the world. Some roads in Gozo – and all car parks – already can’t cope with the current load. And sustained growth in traffic volume that a future tunnel is reliant on will cause a never-ending cycle of expansion of the road network and parking facilities. 

High traffic volume and reduction of commuting time to Malta by 40 minutes could transform the island into suburbia for the well-off, for those who can afford the daily drive to Malta for work while living in the more spacious island. 

As a suburb, or as an extension of Malta, Gozo would become something like Mellieħa, no longer a distinctive island. And just as it will make it easier for people to live in Gozo and drive to Malta for work, it will also make it easier for tourists to drive over for the day. In fact, the report identifies this as an “objective”; it talks about the “benefits” of “the influx” of tourists facilitated by the tunnel.

It’s a 19th century vision, this idea of constructing a tunnel for better vehicular access and thus generating road traffic and congestion as a form of economic growth

Is this what’s good for Gozo – more daytrippers, more congestion, more low-value mass tourism – or more tourists lodging in Gozo and driving to Malta for sightseeing? 

It’s a 19th century vision, this idea of constructing a tunnel for better vehicular access and thus generating road traffic and congestion as a byproduct or form of economic growth.

Isn’t Gozo supposed to “become an eco-island by 2020?” And supposed to be a distinct tourist destination? Or are different ministries and different authorities purveyors of different, contradictory visions?

Besides, it has been maintained that tourists prefer the ferry crossing, so is Transport Malta so desperate to conjure a sufficient volume of traffic to make the tunnel feasible that tourists driving to Gozo has been tacked on as an “objective” and “benefit” now?

The report becomes even more assertive when it gets into the financing and operational model. It envisages a tunnel financed, constructed and run by private operators: the operator shall take around seven years to design and build it and then maintain it and operate it for 20 years thereafter.

Since no cost estimates for construction and maintenance are given, here we get into a spiral of omissions. Without an estimation of cost, no private interest can assess viability; and without an accurate picture of the geology, and the exact depth at which the supposed tunnel will be bored (in the layer above or below the blue clay layer) no cost estimation can be made. Depth of tunnel is consequential, it will determine the inclination of the road, and the maintenance cost – a deeper tunnel might have higher maintenance costs due to residue buildup inside (from exhaust, abrasion of tyres and asphalt), as well as higher costs incurred to pump out noxious fumes. A shallow tunnel meanwhile may have more seawater infiltration.

In any case, the report acknowledges that the ferry is set to remain and the tunnel would be a second option of travel between the islands. In this scenario it’s hard to imagine how private interests are going to invest a huge amount of money that are locked up for the seven years it will take to construct, and then have to wring out a return on investment and profit within 20 years of operation (the length of the concession) given that the ferry will make any business projections uncertain.

How expensive would the tunnel fare have to be to make the project worthwhile, and what percentage of commuters would prefer to take the ferry if it’s cheaper? It’s a question that can give the jitters to prospective investors.  

Yet this fixation on the tunnel is distracting us from the predicament at hand: the volume of traffic has outgrown the capacity of the current fleet of ferries plying the Mġarr-Ċirkewwa route. The travel back and forth for the thousands of Gozitans who work in Malta is also beleaguering: the 7,000 Gozitans who work in Malta deserve practicable solutions.

A variety of solutions can be had. One of them is expanding work-from-home possibilities for Gozitan workers, and this would be possible for a large percentage of the workers. Another is flexitime, or giving workers the possibility of working during the crossing to Malta – and reintroducing the slow ferry to Valletta that would make this possible.

I miss the ferry to Valletta, which was discontinued in 2015. On my trips to Malta I used to use the 90 minutes on the ferry productively: a chance to have breakfast and do some work. It’s so much better than taking the ferry to Ċirkewwa and then frustratingly driving for 45 minutes. This ferry could be the ideal option for Gozitan workers on flexible working arrangements – start the day’s work on the ferry and carry on seamlessly on arrival at the office. 

A combination of measures – fast ferry to Valletta, slow ferry to Valletta, an effort to put Gozitan workers on work-from-home and flexible-timing arrangements – can alleviate, even eliminate, the inconvenience of working in Malta for the majority of Gozitan workers in Malta. It can make travel between the islands more pleasant, a seamless part of people’s workday, not an extra hassle.

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