The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Free public transport: Government to ‘take stock’ of measure and see if it’s value for money

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 4 June 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 2 years ago

The government will ‘take stock’ of the free public transport for all measure after one year of it being in operation, and see whether it is ‘value for money’, Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

In an interview with this newsroom, he was asked about public transport, traffic, road safety and the proposed metro system.

He said that many say they are ready to explore the use of public transport, "although there is a large segment who says that even if it’s perfect they won't use it. Not counting those, there are people who are ready to consider using it, provided that it's reliable, on time, efficient, professional and so on," he explained. But “even if we were to double the bus fleet, they would still be stuck in traffic.”

The minister highlighted the need to provide incentives for public transport to be quicker, “and so we are considering bus lanes, tidal lanes." Told that this was tried in the past, the minister said yes, but they were removed after a few weeks as there was an outcry over traffic.

"Right now the country is spending almost €6 million a month on public transport. €72 million a year,” he said. "Is it value for money? Did we see the shift we wanted in the country with free public transport? How many Maltese youths, adults, workers truly left their cars and, maybe twice or three times a week started using public transport? I don't think this happened. Obviously we need to give it a chance."

October marks the one year mark from the introduction of the initiative, he said. "But it will be good to see if all those funds are value for money." 

He said that only Luxembourg and Malta offer free public transport, “but are we reaching our goals, or are we spending €6 million a month without obtaining the desired results?” 

The Malta Chamber of Commerce has long been pushing the concept of an e-mobility wallet, Farrugia said. “They weren't so much in favour of free public transport. They told us they would have preferred if we had divided those funds among the people, creating an e-mobility wallet where people would be given an amount of money by the government which they could then use as they wish on cabs, public transport, scooters etc. If someone doesn't use public transport but would use cabs, there would be times when they would use a cab and not their private cars - that was the Chamber's argument." 

Asked whether he is saying that he would consider removing free public transport, he said that he would not be the one to decide, adding that the government takes decisions. 

What he will do, he said, is present the rest of government with the figures of the amount being spent and the results of the measure, and ask what they will collectively do in the future. “Then we would decide.”

He said that the government might keep free public transport permanently, or look at what could be improved, maybe increasing the investment from say €6 million to €10 million a month for example, increasing the fleet and routes, “but we need to introduce bus lanes as until that is done buses will remain stuck in traffic." 

The government will review the situation and then decide. "Does demand and supply match? (...) The government needs to decide. Will it continue strengthening this measure, and instead of €6 million a month spend €8 million or €10 million, or instead can it explore ways and means, where it would spend that money anyway, but maybe create some form of hybrid? These are things we still need to explore.”

"What I'm saying is that by the end of October, after giving the measure a year, we will study whether it was value for money."

Staggering services during morning peak hours

With regard to tackling traffic, the minister, in the past, had mentioned the idea of staggering services during morning peak hours.

“There is no magic wand to solve all traffic problems,” he said, adding that the government is looking at its “holistic plan” through which it reduces the inconvenience people face. Staggering services during the morning peak hours is one measure the government is working on.

“We had said in the budget that we would hold discussions with stakeholders, so that those services provided during the peak hours that can operate during other hours, would do so. Over the past months we held meetings (...) We met everyone, from the Malta Chamber of Commerce, to the MCESD, local councils...”

He described the feedback received as being positive, "in the sense that they understand the problem and that this could be part of the solution." 

But everyone has their stumbling blocks, he said, "and that is what we have to overcome.

For example, the construction industry would consider the idea to be good but that their vehicles aren't as problematic. The delivery sector, on the other hand, would say that "this is how we have always worked, how can we tell shops that we will deliver fresh bread at 10am instead of 6am' for instance.”

The minister said that he has an idea of how this would be implemented and is looking ahead to finalising the plan. 

He gave examples of such services, mentioning deliveries, couriers, trailers, driving instructors, waste collectors, gas deliveries, roundabout embellishment services, he said. "All of these could be done at different times." The minister indicated that the government might not go in the direction of having such a measure in place for every day of the week, but possibly just on particular days.

He would not commit to dates as to when we could expect the implementation of such a measure. "In the last budget we said we would hold stakeholder meetings," he said, and in the coming budget he wants to be able to say that they are moving forward.

Asked whether tackling traffic through road widening has been a success, Minister Farrugia mentioned the Transport Strategy and the Transport Master Plan. 

“The Master Plan takes us until 2030 and the strategy until 2050 (…) Both push towards two particular methods to alleviate traffic.” One looks at roads themselves, and the other regards sustainable transport measures, he said. “The country progressed a lot when it comes to infrastructure, but did not advance enough when it came to sustainable transport,” he said, indicating that the latter point is his focus.

“I remember a time when people would say that for a road to be resurfaced either the Queen or the Pope would need to pass through it. Nowadays we are doing a lot of work.”

“From the other end, the strategy highlights the need to introduce sustainable transport measures. There has been work on this, and free public transport is one such measure that tried to help, but there is a need for more measures.”

Disincentives for car use

Whereas in the past incentives were at the forefront, the minister said that "now we might need disincentives. It’s the carrot and stick situation. The country has to take measures if it wants to reduce the traffic problem.”

Asked what he has in mind, he said that there are measures which could be implemented.

“If you look at the Transport Strategy, or the Transport Master Plan, the National Environment and Climate Plan, or the Low Carbon Development Strategy, these are all documents we gave to Brussels which include measures which need to be implemented. Maybe not all, but a number of them do. Let’s take timed parking zones for example. It has long been on the country's agenda. I believe there are 16 local councils that want to introduce a timed parking zone in their locality. It is part of the solution, without a doubt.”

Other ideas he mentioned are bus lanes and low emission zones.

Asked about the idea of paid on-street parking, he said that timed parking zones could include free parking, where for instance a driver could park for two hours but then has to move their car, or alternatively could allow drivers to park for 3-5 hours against payment. "One would explore whether this could be done against payment and have those funds ringfenced, so that the revenue generation could be used to improve public transport, or for incentives for people to use their cars less."

Earlier this year, Farrugia said that the government doesn’t presently have an appetite for penalising private car use. He denies that there is now a shift in direction. “The solutions exist and are in the documents already given to Brussels,” he said. "Now we need to decide if we will implement them or not. If we want to reduce traffic, we need to start implementing these measures."

Answering further questions, he said that on the one hand the government has to provide good alternatives, mentioning the recent €35 million announced for safer active mobility connections as an example, and on the other, disincentivise car use. "It has to be that way, otherwise we will remain in traffic."

However, he said, "one needs to be careful so as not to introduce burdensome measures that people would absorb anyway.” He gave an example. “I'm inventing here, but if we were to double the road certification tax, do you think people would stop using their cars? No, they will absorb it by paying, and you would end up making people pay more while not getting the end result as they would still drive."

The idea, he said, is to do things that will truly result in people shifting from using their car.

The minister was asked what he intends to do about road safety, given the rising number of accidents, as well as the number of deaths on the road. 

The increase has not only been noted in Malta, but also in Europe, he said. 

“In Malta, it is obviously compounded by the fact that you have an increase in demographics, in population - 100,000 new people over the last ten years.”

In December the government had announced a comprehensive plan for road safety, he said. The government wanted to send a message, that it means business, he explained. This is why, he said, the government began by increasing fines and penalty points for road regulation breaches.

"The increase in penalty points means that if you’re caught driving while on the phone twice, you lose 12 points, meaning that your licence is taken away."

The setting up a Transport Safety Investigations Commission is also being explored, he said. “The UK had done this a few months ago, and we are taking a lot from their model (…) This would complement magisterial inquiries.”

"This Transport Safety Investigations Commission, he said, will specifically focus on what happened, with hindsight. What could have been done better? What could have been done to avoid an accident or to lessen the impact?"

He also mentioned the need to strengthen the Road Safety Unit within Transport Malta"It is overwhelmed by the number of cases, and so we need to strengthen it." He said that they are not excluding turning it into an agency.

 

A vehicle is a weapon

Asked about enforcement on the ground, he said that there are three entities that conduct enforcement on the road - the police, Transport Malta and LESA.

He believes that every entity is understaffed. "But let me be clear, you could have all of the police and Transport Malta out on the roads, if individuals aren't responsible then it is for nothing."

 

"A vehicle is a weapon. Excessive speeding could kill the driver and others. We speak about speed cameras, enforcement, fine, we agree. But let’s start from the individual. If the individual continues to speed, continues drinking or taking substances and driving... it is the individual's responsibility."

It is good to review and to introduce measures, he said, adding that a lot of work is being done, mentioning Transport Malta's approach of including of bicycle lanes for instance.

He said that he receives complaints about the reduction in car lanes for bicycle lanes.

"The country needs to decide what direction it will go for. Politicians are not there to be popular, but to do what the country needs. If we decided that the country needs, like all countries, active mobility routes, so be it."

 

Cutting the red tape for speed cameras

 

Following a tragic accident on the Central Link, it emerged that the Attard local council had been asking for the installation of speed cameras for over a year and a half. 

The mayor said that the council receives complaints “that overspeeding occurs daily especially late at night and during the weekends.” Asked about Transport Malta not taking direct action during that year-and-a-half, the minister said that Transport Malta needs to be more agile.

“The amount of red tape to issue a speed camera permit needs to be cut.

“I already asked to have, in writing, information about the process of applying for a speed camera, among other things,” he said. The minister is informed that there are other entities involved. “Apparently Transport Malta isn't the one that purchases speed cameras, but the information is still coming in, and I asked for an expedited process. Can we have an expedited process? Do we need to wait a year and a half to give permission for a speed camera? Do we need to take 8 months? Or do we need to take 8 weeks?”

He said that audits on new roads, as per international standards, are carried out a year after opening. "Now you can implement something in the interim, for example speed guns. An audit is on the structure of the road," he said. 

Going back to speed cams, he said he is informed that there are around 12-14 local councils that asked for speed cameras. "What is happening? Why is the process long? Why is there red tape? I asked the new CEO to provide me with a method as to how we could be more agile and results oriented.”

Metro studies and the need for a mass transport system

The minister was also asked about the metro project. The country definitely needs mass public transport, Farrugia said. “With our economy, and with our economic forecasts, the country definitely needs mass public transport.”

“When I became Transport Minister, the study that had been conducted looked into whether the project could be done,” he said.

Before starting geological studies, the minister said, he wanted to know how feasible the project is from the financial aspect.

“Can government finances take it on? What critical mass do we need? How much would people pay to use it? How ready are people to use a metro? Given people say they don't like walking from their home to a bus stop, will we have the same problem with metro stations?”

The minister was shown three economic models, in terms of how the government could absorb the costs, he said, explaining that he will take these models and studies to the rest of government, which will then decide the way forward. He would not go into the specifics of the economic model options.
As for the Gozo tunnel, the minister immediately said that the project is "shelved right now."

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