Tunnel proposal may have holes in it

The environmental risks alone are worth the pause. It is now clear that the proposed tunnel entrances will be (most probably) below the Kenuna Tower in Nadur and in the Għerien area between Mellieħa and St Paul’s Bay, on the outskirts of Manikata. Both areas are of ecological importance to Malta and Gozo, and situated in prime rural areas

Once again, the age-old controversy of an improved link between Malta and Gozo has arisen; and once again, we seem to be no nearer to any national consensus.

In the early 1990s, the debate was over a possible airfield near Chambray. And while a helicopter link did briefly exist, it proved too costly to sustain (and, in any case, did not cater for either mass-transit, or vehicles). Today, the concept of a permanent, fixed-wing airlink between the two islands appears to be permanently grounded.

Likewise, subsequent discussions of a Malta-Gozo bridge never really got off the ground. Today, however, the proposal of a tunnel-link beneath the seabed – which initially seemed to fly directly out of science fiction – appears to have gained significant momentum. It featured prominently in the 2017 electoral campaign; and at the end of last year, the Minister of Infrastructure Ian Borg announced that tenders would be issued ‘soon’.

Yet to date there have been no studies concluded on the potential social, environmental, and economic impacts of a project of such magnitude; and even less discussion on whether the problem can even be successfully addressed using this particular strategy, to the exclusion of all others.

Admittedly, government can argue that its victory in 2017 gives it a mandate to forge ahead with this plan; even if a tunnel, with the specifications indicated today, was not a specific Labour Party electoral promise.

Without even contesting that claim, however, prudence decrees that we are rushing into this project with needless haste. In the absence of any definitive answers to serious questions regarding the environment or even health and safety, for that matter – geologists have already warned of the risks of collapse, both during construction and even while operating – it would surely be wiser to slow down the pace a little.

The environmental risks alone are worth the pause. It is now clear that the proposed tunnel entrances will be (most probably) below the Kenuna Tower in Nadur and in the Għerien area between Mellieħa and St Paul’s Bay, on the outskirts of Manikata. Both areas are of ecological importance to Malta and Gozo, and situated in prime rural areas.

On the Malta end, the tunnel entrance will have disastrous impacts since the area is home to that part of the water table which is least polluted on the islands. Not so long ago, plans for a golf course in the area were discarded for a multitude of reasons. Those reasons would surely apply just as much – if not more so – to a proposal that would bore a hole right through the same water table.

There are also other concerns: air quality would deteriorate due to a substantial increase in vehicle emissions. In addition, noise and light pollution will be introduced to these practically pristine areas. A project of such a massive scale will also lead to wider roads to sustain the new traffic flow, placing considerable strain on both Malta’s and Gozo’s limited road infrastructure.

On another level, there is still plenty of room for discussion about the problem that this tunnel – or bridge, or air-link before it – was all along intended to solve. For on one thing there has always been national consensus: the existing ferry link between Malta and Gozo – though a decent service in many ways – is simply not coping with the sheer bulk of the traffic it now has to cater for.

From this perspective, it does not help that the national debate (such that it is) always seems to take a uniquely ‘Maltese’ perspective on the issue. Many have argued that the tunnel/bridge option would reduce Gozo to a mere district of Malta; exporting to that island all its larger sister’s traffic and construction woes.

There is certainly some merit to the argument; for such a transformation would indeed rob Gozo of the rural ambience that is so central to its character and identity (and also to its foreign and domestic tourism industry). But it remains rooted in the view of Gozo as nothing more than a holiday destination for (mostly Maltese) visitors. Even if their concern is warranted, it does nothing to address the logistical nightmare of Gozo residents who have to wake up at 4am, to be at work or in class (in Malta) by 9.

However even in this scenario, it remains debatable whether a tunnel is the only possible solution. While it is important that we look at other ways to improve transportation links between Malta and Gozo, it is just as important to see why people are practically forced to commute to Malta to work. It is evident that the government has failed in its economic plans for Gozo, and it is hiding its shortcomings to the Gozitan people by offering a tunnel as a solution.

Yet if government were to invest as much money into Gozo’s business development, as it is ready to invest in a tunnel, there might be no need for such a drastic solution in the first place.

All things considered, then, the Transport Ministry would be wise to halt the tender procedures, and call for a national debate on the issue instead.

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