Road-widening is a stop-gap measure

Malta may soon reach the critical population mass to make a mass transit system like a monorail or a metro economically feasible. But this will take years to develop, and may represent new environmental challenges

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

In a country as small as Malta, any development that eats into open spaces is understandably a cause of instant controversy. Public opposition to large-scale roadworks projects – because they take up agricultural land, or remove trees, or reduce space for pedestrians – represent a belated national cognisance of an issue that environmentalists have been warning about for years. Malta cannot keep responding to its logistical challenges by throwing construction and development at the problem. A time will eventually come when there is simply no further open space to eat into.

And yet, road-widening projects which come at an environmental cost cannot be so easily dismissed off-hand, if they also result in air quality improvements thanks to a decrease in traffic congestion. Some sort of trade-off may be inevitable – not unlike the balance between clutch and accelerator in a car – but we must also remember that there is also the brake pedal. Above all, we should refrain from thinking of these projects as a quick-fix solution. They are, at best, a stop-gap measure.

One also notes that, in the past, attention had been focused on land-consuming but not altogether necessary projects like the widening of the Coast Road and the CHOGM road in Ghajn Tuffieha. With the exception of the Kappara project initiated in 2012, critical junctions were largely left unaddressed, while Malta lost precious decades in devising mass transit systems: while the bus reform was not only botched by under-investment but also overtaken by further increases in road traffic which undermined its reliability during traffic rush hours.

Clearly, some projects have resulted in an easing of traffic congestion: even if, in the absence of any reduction to traffic itself, it is unclear whether such road projects end up simply pushing traffic from one area to another. Eliminating one bottleneck may well end up creating others further down the road. For example, preliminary studies related to the Central Link Project envisage an improvement in air quality in the area of Triq l-Imdina junction with Triq iż-Żagħfran, to the junction with Triq in-Nutar Zarb, due to the likely reduction in traffic on this part of the route. But experts warn that in the areas adjoining Triq Oliver Agius, Triq Ferdinandu Inglott and Triq Tumas Chetcuti, the same project may result in a deterioration in air quality given the increased traffic in this area owing to the new bypass.

These questions become more urgent when one considers that agricultural land in Malta is in short supply and that Constitutional provisos exist to protect it from all but the most necessary of public projects. Apart from the loss of such land, extending road networks risks further eroding the few remaining open gaps between localities.

The Central Link project will result in the loss of 60,000sq.m of agricultural land while the Addolorata roadworks will result in the further loss of 15,000sq,m. Balancing land-use costs with infrastructural needs is always difficult especially in a situation where the onslaught of road-building is being conducted in the context of a building boom, which by its own nature is increasing traffic and creating more infrastructural pressures.

Moreover, the nexus between the property boom and population increase may nullify any temporary benefits of road-widening. In the absence of more substantial measures, widening roads may buy us a few years; only to return to the same problem after the number of cars catches up with the new infrastructure.

The risk is that by that time, more rural land would have been lost, which may well presage even more development as open spaces between towns are eroded. That is why road-widening should be minimised as much as possible and only undertaken in conjunction with a real effort to decrease traffic in Malta.

Meanwhile, government’s haste to embark on such projects raises questions of its own. Transport Minister Ian Borg seems keen on leaving his mark as a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘procrastinator’. But his government’s decision to press ahead with Tal-Balal works in the absence of a permit puts it in the same league as developers who first conduct works illegally, and then apply to regularise at a later stage. It sends the wrong message to society.

Borg’s zeal is also problematic because he is not just a roads minister, but a transport and planning minister. This infers that road widening – where necessary – should be conducted in the context of the government’s own Transport Master Plan, which is aimed at reducing traffic. 

The only silver lining is that Malta may soon reach the critical population mass to make a mass transit system like a monorail or a metro economically feasible. But this will take years to develop, and may represent new environmental challenges.

Therefore, in the medium term, the only viable solution is that of reducing traffic on the roads and encouraging alternatives like maritime routes. In this respect, businesses need to assume their responsibilities. Green Travel Plans should be a standard practice, and businesses which offer workers alternative means of transport – or encourage car-pooling – should benefit from fiscal incentives.

Fiscal disincentives like congestion charges – although potentially unpopular – should be considered at some stage.