A mass transportation system leading to more development?

In a nutshell:  mass transportation poses a daunting challenge to our way of life; but also presents us with a new opportunity to re-imagine our towns and cities

On Saturday, government published the long-awaited conclusions of a study by ARUP consultants, which recommended a metro costing E6.2 billion as the most feasible mass transportation system for this country.

As a newspaper, MaltaToday has consistently favoured the introduction of a mass transit system which would ensure that public transport serves to detract from – rather than add to – the flow of traffic on our road network.

Therefore, we can only welcome both the publication of the report’s conclusions; and also, the government’s call for a ‘national debate’.

But we also believe that there are different options to achieve this goal; and the implications of each choice must be carefully assessed.  

For instance: the report conclusions propose a three-line underground railway which would cater for the most populous towns and business hubs in the centre of the island: but which excludes Gozo, and a substantial part of western and south eastern Malta.  

And yet, despite having called for a national debate, the government has so far not provided access to the full ARUP study itself: which also considered other mass transportation systems; namely surface trams, a combined tram and metro network, a rapid bus transit system, and an elevated metro.  

At this stage, there is no information regarding how much each of these options would cost; nor were we told the various technical reasons why these alternatives were excluded.

So while government is right that a proper public debate is required, on a project which will commit not only this government and the next, but also subsequent ones for at least 20 years… it remains debatable how this debate can even proceed, in the absence of any clear information.

What sense does it make, to expect feedback from local experts in the field, if they do not even have access to the studies, and the data they include?

Moreover, the government has called for this national debate without committing itself to the project in question. Even the finance minister was non-committal when asked about the financial viability of the project; and Transport Minister Ian Borg was uncharacteristically cautious.

But unless this is simply an exercise in kite flying, the government should be more clear on whether a 6.2 billion expenditure is even possible to begin with.  

Apart from the finances, there are serious environmental and infrastructural challenges to be faced in a project like this. One major concern about the development of a metro is the production of 10 million tones of construction waste.  

This amounts to five times the amount of construction waste produced in 2019, and eight times the amount of construction waste produced in 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, with no slow-down of construction in sight - and coupled with the estimated 1 million tonnes of waste created by the Gozo tunnel - Malta would reach a point of no return which could make land reclamation inevitable.  

If so, this would have an inevitable impact on the marine environment and could also increase pressure for speculative projects on the coastline.  Therefore, when assessing the different mass transport options, it is also important to assess the environmental cost.  

For example: while trams may pose logistical problems on the existing road network, such a system would not create any construction waste.  For the same reason, it may make sense to explore the possibility of hybrid system (metro and tram) which would reduce construction waste (and land reclamation for non-speculative purposes) to a minimum.  

Another important consideration is social.  A metro would practically seal the present-day development model, which has partly depended on population growth and more construction.  In fact we have been told that a metro would only be viable in Gozo if its population increases by 50,000 inhabitants.   

In short, Malta needs to keep its current population levels to ensure the viability of projects like the metro (and indirectly, also the Gozo tunnel: which would likewise be financially dependent of a high volume of cars crossing between the two islands).

In this case, the nightmare scenario would be that the metro project will trigger even more construction: this time, through land reclamation.  And yet – if coupled by a drive for more pedestrian areas in areas presently dedicated to car traffic - a metro could also make our cities more liveable; whilst also obviating the need for further road infrastructure projects, like the ones proposed in Pembroke and Msida.

Another major social implication, of choosing a metro system which only caters for central Malta, is the risk of having a two-tier transport system.  In this sense greater investment will be required in other public transport alternatives in those localities: including big urban centres like B’Bugia, M’scala and Zebbug, which will not be part of the metro network.  

In a nutshell:  mass transportation poses a daunting challenge to our way of life; but also presents us with a new opportunity to re-imagine our towns and cities.  This is why an informed debate is indeed necessary; and also, why kite-flying should be avoided at all costs.