The Malta Independent 21 March 2019, Thursday

Gozo tunnel should be for mass underground transport system, not cars – GTA

Tuesday, 22 January 2019, 11:55 Last update: about 3 months ago

The tunnel linking Malta to Gozo should be built for a mass underground transport system and not for cars, the CEO of the Gozo Tourism Association (GTA) Joe Muscat told this newsroom.

Citing a resolution taken by the GTA, Muscat said that in their view the tunnel should look at the matter of connectivity between the two islands in a wider scope, and hence should incorporate an underground rail system that connects Gozo to centres around Malta such as Valletta and the Malta International Airport instead of focusing on cars.

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Muscat explained that whilst the current proposal for a physical link saves time when compared to the ferry and solves problems of bad weather, it does not take into account the time in traffic spent in Malta.  Currently, Muscat said, it still takes an hour and a half to get from Cirkewwa to Valletta. 

It is for this reason that the GTA would like to see this enormous infrastructural project done in a holistic manner that looks to the future and that includes a mass underground transport system.

Muscat said that naturally serious studies on this underground system have to be carried out, but said that arguments as to the viability of such a project due to the demand of it are non-starters, saying that there are almost six million people crossing between Malta and Gozo annually, meaning that the numbers to justify such a system are well and truly present.

Through such a system, Muscat said, one would be able to travel from Rabat, in Gozo, to Valletta or to the airport in Luqa within 20 minutes, whilst it also brings the added benefits of reducing emissions and pollution from private vehicles.

“We are not saying that we do not want a tunnel or permanent connectivity; but we just want it to be done wisely”, Muscat added.

The traffic influx in Gozo that the tunnel will cause is something else that Muscat feels has not been considered enough; “Today it is already chaotic in Malta due to the traffic, and in Gozo it can also get chaotic at times – especially when there is an influx of Maltese crossing to Gozo for long weekends. There are certain places then, especially in central areas such as Rabat, which are clogged with traffic - let alone if more cars are going to be added to Gozitan roads through this tunnel”, Muscat explained.

“We are solving the 20 minute crossing; but we are creating other bottlenecks on both the Maltese and the Gozitan sides in our opinion,” Muscat said before adding that this was the reason that they were advocating a tunnel with a rail system. 

He also raised other concerns as to how the tunnel will affect tourism to the island.  He said that the GTA would like to see a Tourism Impact Assessment carried out, noting that Infrastructure Malta had not conducted such a study.  The tourism model that there is present today will most definitely change once the tunnel, as it is currently proposed, becomes operational, Muscat said.

 

The Background: At what stage has the tunnel arrived, who is in favour and who is against?

The Gozo tunnel is earmarked to run between the quiet hamlet of L-Imbordin in Malta and Ta’ Kenuna in Nadur, Gozo.  The current proposal will lead to the creation of a 13km-long tunnel with a seven metre radius and one traffic lane heading in either direction, with an additional safety lane. Traffic analysts predict that around 6,500 vehicles will use the tunnel on a daily basis. 

Last December, Transport Minister Ian Borg announced that tender for the design, building, maintenance, and operation of the tunnel would be published around halfway through 2019, whilst Prime Minister Joseph Muscat even went as far as estimated that the tunnel would be in operation by 2024.  

In an interview with The Malta Independent last July, Franco Mercieca, who heads the committee overseeing the Gozo tunnel project, emphasised the importance of improving Gozo’s connectivity to Malta.  He explained back then that improving the connectivity between the two islands would be a major step towards solving the bulk of the problems that Gozo faces: problems such as a brain-drain and under-production on the island.

Mercieca had expressed his reservations about a fast-ferry alternative, saying that the fast ferry would only cater to a specific group of people and that it is important that the passengers have a good connection between where they disembark and their final destination. The aim of this type of transport should be to alleviate travelling problems, he had said, pointing out that it makes no sense to replace a journey which took, say, 30 minutes by one that takes the same length of time – or perhaps even longer.

The former MP had admitted that concerns about the change in Gozo’s environment due to the tunnel were justified; he had also said that Gozo’s characteristics were changing anyway because the population of the island was shrinking.  He did add however that Gozo’s environment needs to be protected at all costs, and that the granting of building permits needed to be controlled. It cannot be allowed that, just because a tunnel makes the island more accessible, we will then see permits being given out “here and there”, he had said.

One of the biggest advocates of the Gozo tunnel is the Gozo Business Chamber, who said in as early as 2015 that they were extremely satisfied that the government were taking up the tunnel option.  The Chamber back then had said that they are confident that such a project will eventually bring the GDP of Gozo closer to that of Malta and thus, in turn, the whole country would benefit.  This sentiment has been reiterated time and time again since.  Last December, when Borg announced the progress on the issuing of the tender for the tunnel, the Chamber said that process which had started would “continue unabated”.

Feedback hasn’t been totally positive with regards to the tunnel however; archaeologist Keith Buhagiar, speaking to this newsroom last month, expressed his fears that it would eradicate troglodyte dwellings dating back to the late medieval period, fertile agricultural land and other archaeological culturally-relevant remains in L-Imbordin, whilst geologist Peter Gatt also told this newsroom of the problematic geology between the two islands, to the point where he believes that the construction phase of the project may cost lives.  Infrastructure Malta, when contacted by this newsroom, had played down Gatt’s concerns saying that the international team of experts carrying out the necessary studies into the project were “fully aware of the geological characteristics of the rock formation in the area where the tunnel will be excavated” and that various “tried and tested” safety measures would be adopted during the project.

Alternattiva Demokratika meanwhile also raised concern at the fact that Borg had announced the issuing of the tenders before the important Environmental Impact Assessment had been completed, saying that this conveyed the message this assessment was “irrelevant” to the government.  The party’s chairperson had written to the Ombudsman to ask for an investigation into how the tunnel was being administered.

Early this year, the Partit Demokratiku somewhat echoed AD’s stance and said that the plans for the tunnel were surging forward without serious planning citing the lack of due process, serious feasibility studies, and the environmental impact that the tunnel will have on Gozo to back up their statement.

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