Last nail in the ‘Eco Gozo’ coffin

The prospect of construction works near or under Comino should send shivers down the spine of any Environment Authority.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

If ever an electoral promise proved to be short-lived, it would have to be the promise of ‘an Eco Gozo by 2020’.

Originally launched by the PN administration in 2012, the ‘Eco Gozo’ vision was supposed to be a long-term plan for the island to remain both sustainable and competitive without sacrificing its unique appeal. 

It aimed “to protect the Gozitan lifestyle, the island’s environment, resources, culture and identity, and see that all these play a significant part in attracting more visitors and investors to the island…”

Even though the election of March 2013 got in the way of its implementation, the present Labour administration is likewise committed to pursuing all the same goals on paper. 

In practice, however, the reality is different. Stripped of all rhetoric and political posturing, the truth is that neither Nationalist nor Labour party is seriously committed to any clear long-term environmental strategy that can turn the laudable objectives of ‘Eco Gozo’ into reality.

To begin with, both parties’ approach to the entire issue of a permanent road link between the two islands – be it a bridge or a tunnel – has been severely flawed. When a similar tunnel proposal was floated by the Gonzi administration in 2012, it was presented to the public as both ‘economically viable’ and ‘doable’… even though no evidence was brought forward at the time to support either claim.

Instead, government’s preference for a tunnel was supported only by a report commissioned by UK consultants Mott MacDonald, which openly admitted that “a detailed geological and geotechnical investigation is still required to determine more precisely the tunnel alignment, tunnel form, cost and construction methodology”.

Meanwhile, separate geological surveys of the Gozo channel have been carried out for different purposes, and all point towards the existence of a fault-line running right through all four of the proposed tunnel routes. Geologist Dr Peter Gatt told this newspaper that it was the result of “recent changes in the regional stress field”; and could therefore still be active today.

Even if one assumes that the project remains technically feasible despite this obstacle, such factors will have an inevitable impact on the total cost: both in terms of construction, and also maintenance once complete. Yet in 2012, the government seemed so eager to overlook or minimise this consideration that it declared the project economically feasible, without any idea how much it would end up costing the Maltese taxpayer.

Today, the Labour government appears to be making the same mistake. In resuscitating the idea for consideration in the last budget, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna appears to have accepted very preliminary estimates (supplied by the Gozo Business Chamber) that the tunnel would cost somewhere in the region of €250 million. 

Yet even the Gozo Chamber admits that these are entirely tentative estimates, based only on the quotes of a Norwegian company brought over for a preliminary analysis… but which (as was the case with Mott MacDonald) has not carried out the necessary geological studies to substantiate that figure.

As for the long-term feasibility of such a project, this will depend entirely on the business model of the service once the tunnel is complete, as well as on recurring expenses such as maintenance. 

Gozo Chamber President Michael Grech has suggested that the tunnel should be left entirely to the private sector to build and operate: expressing confidence that the capital outlay would be recouped in short time through usage tolls… which he expects to be comparable to (and most likely cheaper than) the cost of a ferry ticket.

Again, however, this is all wishful thinking. Another possibility (borne out by the experience of public transport reform) is that the service would only prove economically feasible through government subsidies, thus exponentially increasing long-term recurrent expenditure: all this without any indication of how such a tunnel might impact the existing (subsidised) ferry service. 

Meanwhile, Grech admits that his financial calculations were “done on the back of an envelope, not based on any real data or geological surveys”. He is naturally free to speculate on the financials at will… but for such calculations to be taken seriously at government level, one would need harder evidence. 

Even based on past experiences in other sectors of the construction industry – which suggest that budget overruns are frequent in large-scale infrastructural projects – the likelihood is that a Malta-Gozo tunnel would cost a good deal more than quarter of a billion. And that price tag does not reflect the non-monetary cost of a project that will change the face of Gozo forever.

The environmental impact of dredging works on the maritime ecosystem, which includes EU protected Poseidonia meadows, cannot be ignored. The prospect of construction works near or under Comino should send shivers down the spine of any Environment Authority.

And once complete, the tunnel would effectively export Malta’s biggest headache – traffic – to Gozo, eroding what is arguably the island’s greatest pull-factor as a tourist destination: the fact that it is different from Malta.

Ultimately, the Gozo tunnel project will link the two islands in more ways than just the obvious. And this will only drive home the last nail in Eco Gozo’s coffin.

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