A Christmas dream – stress free commuting

Building super highways is always mooted as a partial solution in traffic nodes, where excessive blockage occurs and one hopes that shortly we will see the commencement of the long awaited designs for building of both Marsa and Kappara flyovers.

Party apologists wax lyrical praising this government, saying it is meeting its electoral promises, yet most agree that while it is successful in improving the economic and social fabric to generate new jobs and improve standards of living, there are a number of social problems, starting with the high density of traffic on the clogged roads.

These render huge delays for commuters and exacerbate pollution. The opposition cry out loud from the rooftops, reminding all and sundry that problems faced by commuters due to mushrooming of traffic are a real problem and not a mirage so they constantly blame the government for not dealing with the problem. They blame the transport minister, saying he slept on the job, allowing grass to grow under his feet without reaching for the lawn mover.

It is true that signs of affluence are everywhere to be seen and the fact that families now boast of running three to four cars has quickly exacerbated the need for a faster road network. Ironically an island of 320 square kilometres now attracts four times its population by way of visitors (not including thousands of cruise liner excursion seekers) and is fast joining the list of busy European cities facing saturation levels in the number of cars and light vehicles using its creaking road network.

Just remember that Malta is a country with the highest population density in the EU, reaching an average of 1,325 persons per sq. km. compared to the EU average of 117 persons per sq. km. Naturally a number of options were discussed by the transport ministry, such as building an underground rail system or linking Sliema, Valetta and Cottonera by sea, by boring a tunnel through Valletta using fast ferry boats.

Building super highways is always mooted as a partial solution in traffic nodes, where excessive blockage occurs and one hopes that shortly we will see the commencement of the long awaited designs for building of both Marsa and Kappara flyovers.

All these solutions come with a heavy price tag and sadly there is no surplus in the national coffers to foot the bill. Perhaps we can qualify for assistance under the European Fund for Strategic Investments. Such a fund is expected within three years to inject €315 billion in development projects aimed to generate a revival in the EU economies.

In fact, last year it was reported that we submitted a list of potential projects for the fund which included the construction of a monorail involving over-ground and underground lines running North-South and West-East intersecting at key traffic junctions and feeding at its various stops into other above-ground public transport means.

The estimated cost of the 70km service line will be €1.42 billion, and when functional this is expected to revolutionise mass transit – infusing a cataclysmic change. Its adherents claim it can solve current problems, such as daily commuting of school children, and ease the pain of early morning commuters who drive to work but find traffic is in gridlock at all busy nodes.

Execution of the monorail project, once approved, can take place in four phases, each involving a duration of 24 months, so that the first phase will be completed by end 2018 (which happens to coincide with the festivities marking Valetta as the cultural city in Europe).

Consideration will be given to re-use of the rails and tunnels of the old railway system running from Valletta to Mdina, which started in 1882 and was mothballed in 1931 when private car transport rendered the train service superfluous.

Can the transport ministry pluck up courage to seriously consider finding partners to invest in this ambitious solution? In reality the nation depends on its productivity trajectory on an efficient road infrastructure. Studies undertaken by Transport Malta show that commuters spend at least 30 minutes daily of productive work or social quality time, being wasted blocked in traffic.

A tangible improvement in daily commuting may also stimulate the much desired increase in female labour participation as parents can reliably plan the daily commute of their children to school/kindergartens, rather than having to drive them back and forth individually. Naturally, environmentalists may oppose the monorail project saying our narrow streets cannot permit such a monstrous rail system expected to travel at speed on overhead pylons.

Equally  vociferous will be those who live in villas facing the street where the monorail passes, complaining of invasion of privacy. Fancy sitting upstairs in bed with windows open for fresh air when monorail carriages speed across with passengers waving at you. If ever the monorail facility becomes a reality, critics predict it will it be another White Elephant.

Not really, as studies show that the monorail can prove to be the “ultimate solution” for urban mobility. Ideally it will intersect at a core traffic junction, with various stops feeding into other over-ground public transport and it can drastically diminish carbon dioxide emissions.

Otherwise in our hectic life few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the result of acquired affluence by households who are finding good jobs and have a higher propensity to spend in entertainment, food, mobile telephony, travel and of course are tempted to buy an extra  (almost brand new) imported car.

Eurostat figures show that Malta had the second lowest unemployment rate in the EU, at 5.1%. At this point the opposition see red and lambast the government that such improvement in the jobs market is misleading since it reckons this is partly due to massive intake of state employees. Yet official statistics claim otherwise – that eight out of every 10 new jobs actually belong in the private sector, whereas jobs created in the public sector were principally needed in the health and education sectors.

Quoting from official sources one notes that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the second quarter of 2015 showed an increase of 7.3 per cent over the corresponding period last year, which after adjusting for inflation represents a 5.2% increase in real terms. More exemplary results can be found in the growth in Gross Value Added (GVA). Here it is reassuring to observe that it was mainly generated by professional, scientific and technical activities, administrative and support service activities which increased by 18.1 per cent.

Yet according to the Opposition, this improvement in the general standard of living is not tangible at grassroots level since in their opinion families do not feel the effect of the hype and rhetoric of wellness pronounced by party apologists.

In a recent statement, the opposition were distrustful of such good tidings and recently issued a statement declaring “It’s useless for Muscat to boast about the numbers when it is only the chosen few who can enjoy the positive performance of the economy.”

Can one be fooled to think that this is a Cartesian doubt scenario when the party in government reminds its faithful of the rapid progress it achieved during the legislature – still in its mid term. While the traffic problem is unsolved with no specific plans to uproot it, yet the government blows its trumpets saying families can boast of a higher quality of living, not to mention capital projects, such as the opening of a new Oncology hospital, the massive Chinese investment in EneMalta, the popularity of the Individual Investor Programme, adding projects like Bart’s Medical University, the new hospital at SmartCity, the American University of Malta in Zonqor and record arrivals of tourists – not understating a general boost to publicity arising out of the Valletta Summit and hosting of CHOGM.

To conclude, one hopes that the ambitious objective to build a monorail service will be approved and hope the Commission looks favourably to our request for part financing it – the rest of the funds can most surely be sourced from the private sector. Can this good news be the best Christmas gift to commuters.