A recipe for traffic-induced disaster

With the current rates of increase in car-use, doing nothing about traffic congestion will only result in a grid lock, but the consequences of this project are too stark to ignore

There can be no doubt that the Central Link project represented a very real dilemma for the Planning Board.  

With the current rates of increase in car-use, doing nothing about traffic congestion will only result in a grid lock. But the consequences of this project are too stark to ignore. These include the loss of 50,000sq.m of agricultural land – the equivalent of seven football pitches – impacting the livelihood of 47 farmers.  

Other costs include enclosing a residential area in which 1,200 people live in the new highway: effectively splitting a community.  

Ironically, only last week Prime Minister Muscat boasted of greatly improving the quality of life of the Maltese. But this will surely not be the case for the 1,200 citizens who will end up living on a centre-strip.

Meanwhile, road-widening in various areas of Malta has already resulted in the permanent loss of around 40,000sq.m of agricultural land in various areas.  But in this case, a staggering 19,000sq.m will be taken up by the new bypass, and other roads feeding it.  

Added to this is the loss of mature trees. The promise of 770 new trees does not compensate for the loss of 272 fully mature trees, some of which may be older than anyone living in Malta at the moment. This is a precious, irreplaceable part of our collective memory.  

Added to this is the absurd relocation of the historical buildings around the St Paul's Shipwreck church. Instead of re-routing the road, as originally proposed by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, Infrastructure Malta is now intent on relocating parts of these buildings, divorcing them from their cultural landscape.

Clear red lines must be established before infrastructural projects of this magnitude are undertaken. However, red lines will not solve the current impasse, which is also the result of lack of action during the past 50 years with regards to creating viable public transport options as an alternative to the private car.  

And yet, the new infrastructure is not primarily meant to accommodate bus lanes, but only cars. Even bike lanes have come as an afterthought, with the proposed lanes failing short of a real network which makes it possible for cyclists to travel uninterruptedly along the new route. 

This means that the Central Link project will push the main Valletta-Rabat public transport service further away from residents, making it less accessible.  

But the main problem remains the sheer number of cars on the road. The simple truth nobody wants to face is that, if we manage to reduce cars, we would not need wider roads. Nor can we afford to wait for a mass transit system, which can only come about in the next decades.  

The change has to be commenced now – today – through clear measures which include disincentives for car use, and active discouragement of single passenger car use; as well as incentives for car-pooling and the use of public transport.  

The Transport Master plan, approved in 2016, already establishes a clear objective in “the provision of alternatives to private vehicles to encourage sustainable travel patterns and reduce private vehicular demand in the congested hub area”.  

It is incomprehensible that Malta has embarked on a road-widening exercise before, and not after, implementing this objective. Once a plan to reduce car use is clearly defined, it would be easier to re-assess the Central Link project on the basis of fewer and not more cars on the road.  

Transport Minister Ian Borg is duty-bound to present such a plan. Instead, he seems only interested in establishing himself as a “doer” by embarking on a series of road-widening projects.

The project has also been justified as a way to improve air quality, as a result of decreasing congestion: ignoring the impact on 1,200 residents who will end up even more exposed to emissions. 

Moreover, the EIA calculations are also based on the assumption that vehicles will still be powered by the internal combustion engine by 2045 – ignoring the real possibility that electric cars will be the norm in the near future. 

All things told, it is difficult not to suspect that the rush for this new road infrastructure is dictated by the demands posed by high-rise developments in Mriehel.

In its final report, the Environmental and Resources Authority hit the nail on the head by insisting “that the traffic abatement issue should also be addressed at a strategic level through sustainable measures that effectively reduce dependence on car transport”. 

Unfortunately, its representative on the board, Prof. Victor Axiak, did not even qualify his support for the project. Like other government appointees on the board, Axiak simply voted in favour of the project without even opening his mouth: without asking any question, without seeking any clarification on one of the greatest take-up of ODZ land in recent years.  

This, in itself, raises questions on how ERA plays second fiddle to other considerations, leaving the citizen more vulnerable.

Clearly, the regulatory authorities are not doing their job properly. Equally clearly, the Transport Ministry is motivated by short-term strategies that will only exacerbate existing problems in the near future.

This is a recipe for disaster