In the past few days we as ADZ Malta decided to voice our concerns on the possibility of a massive bridge being built to link Malta with its sister island Gozo. This must be seen in light of the results of the feasibility study carried out by the China Communications Constructions Company (CCCC), published earlier this week in Maltese media outlets. I won’t delve into the merits and demerits of having a Chinese company, blacklisted by the World Bank (mind you) carry out such a study; that’s another matter altogether. Nor shall I go into how and why the proposal is inherently unsustainable (on all fronts, be it economical, environmental, social or cultural); my colleague Pascal Aloisio did just that in his previous blog post, and honestly there is very little to add.
What I’ll try to do in this brief contribution is list few of the more sound alternatives to a permanent bridge between the two main islands of the Maltese Archipelago. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has proclaimed that a bridge or tunnel is a ‘must’, but is it?
Unfortunately, there has been a worrying recent trend where anyone who openly criticises Government decisions and appointments has been branded as ‘negative’ by the ‘Taghna Lkoll’ administration. Not only is this a blatant attack on the fundamental right of free speech, but it ignores the fact that obligatory constructive criticism makes no sense at all. Watching Muscat’s reaction to the Opposition leader’s budget remarks was almost a comical affair, how can he expect a weakened Opposition, with very little intellectual resources to dispose of, to come up with solutions of its own to the pressing macro-economic budgetary dilemmas of our time? It’s not in its capacity and it’s not its duty to do so. However, we at ADZ Malta Green Youth are going a step further, and would like to outline some better propositions the Government should consider when addressing the Gozo link conundrum.
1) A tunnel linking the islands.
Whilst being much more aesthetically pleasing than a permanent bridge, the challenges a potential tunnel will face will be numerous. Many have argued that Malta does not have the engineering expertise to commission such an infrastructural project, and past experiences have shown us that the Public Sector has failed time after time in successfully constructing and maintaining infrastructural developments of a much smaller scale. The mind boggles at the prospect of having local construction companies dealing with such an intrepid engineering feat, given their track record of inefficiency and poor planning. The Government will unfortunately have to look at issuing tenders aimed at foreign Consortiums and companies to construct the tunnel, this will inflate the price of the project whilst minimising the money trickling down back into our local economy. Given our worrying figures when it comes to national debt, this would be somewhat unwise.
Leaving all this aside, the possibility of a tunnel being built in the channel between Malta and Gozo is further hindered by the fact that the geology of the seabed of the channel would complicate matters further. In the May of 2012, geologist Dr.Peter Gatt made it unequivocally clear that digging through the fault lines found in the subterranean rock formations would be “fatal” . I personally believe that albeit these quasi-impossibilities do subsist, the prospect of a tunnel cannot be completely discarded. It can be seen as the lesser of two evils, especially when one puts the possibility of a bridge on the other side of the weighing scale.
2) A complete revamp of the Gozo Channel ferry system.
Although I do not agree with the Government’s means in achieving the end of changing the current communications’ facilities between the islands, it is recommendable that finally someone is taking the issue seriously. The past administration’s pre-feasibility study on the tunnel coupled with the current efforts are a good start, however it is disappointing that both parties in Government have overlooked what is probably the easiest and most sustainable route.
It’s becoming almost customary that every successive Prime Minister is hellbent on having their ego fulfilled by building a monumental landmark (cashed out of the taxpayers’ wallet of course) that would cement his or her name in Maltese folklore permanently. The bridge or tunnel may be another such exercise of power to fulfill a leader’s ego, but what can be equally fulfilling; is the concept of salvaging the Gozo Channel’s future, and with it the fate of 200 employees and their respective families. Currently Gozitans commuting on a daily or weekly basis to and fro, find the Gozo Channel schedule unrealistic (especially in the early mornings), the trip’s duration far too lengthy and the traffic and distance from Mellieha to their destinations unsupportable. Especially if the same destinations lie somewhere in the Central or Northern Harbour area district, the Maltese equivalent of Dante’s seventh ring of hell during rush hours.
I believe that a new and improved fleet of smaller and faster vessels should be on the Government’s cards. A possible change in the route should also be seriously considered. Yes, this would draw enormous criticism due to the implications this would purport, especially when the change in final arrival point would render past and present investments in embellishing the Cirkewwa Terminal virtually useless. Having said that, it is logical that by substituting Cirkewwa for Valletta as the destination for commuters it would make life easier for said commuters and prevent further traffic issues in the north of the island. However, how would one reconcile the added pressure exerted upon the infrastructure of the Central Harbour District within a more holistic strategy for reducing traffic congestion and increasing quality of life for Gozitan commuters and Maltese citizens alike?
That’s where an efficient and well planned integrated public transport system comes in. Imagine having a fast and reliable ferry transport system linking Gozitans to Malta by taking them directly to the heart of the country (Valletta), coupled with an equally fast and reliable public system that would connect their port of call with their destination of choice. If we were to go a step further and think about how we can possibly further reduce the carbon footprint of the Gozitan commute we can look at how Hong Kong (ironically part of China) are powering their ferry boats with solar (yes, solar) energy. Can we actually achieve this? If Muscat does believe we can and should be the best in Europe then yes we should consider being avantgarde. . Of course I’m being idealistic, and I’m bordering into fantasy land, but I’m not venturing into unchartered territory. The idea of a bridge or tunnel solving all of Gozo’s problems is in my opinion, far, far more unrealistic than optimizing the Gozo Channel service.
My last suggestion to PM Muscat is simple. Persevering with the short-sighted idea of a permanent link (be it bridge or tunnel), can prove successful in terms of immediate re-election, as I’m sure many inpatient Gozitans and PL aficionados will greet the completion of such a project as a clear sign of political might. But on the long term, this project may make or break the future of Gozo, and by permanently linking it with Malta, the State may be exerting disproportionate pressures on a small island with a unique Mediterranean character. Not to mention losing millions of Euros in EU ‘double insularity’ funds. The Honourable Joseph must keep in mind that present generations may hail his name for the unprecedented build, but future generations will inevitably curse his name if things turn sour. We cannot let Gozo be irreversibly ruined by development, and as a resident of the Central Harbour District myself, I believe I know fairly well how hard the consequences of over-development can hit.
Stefan Cutajar (ADZ Malta Green Youth Deputy Chairperson)