Gozo tunnel project ‘feasible’ as Muscat eyes 2025 completion date

In Gozo, Prime Minister pledges completion of Malta-Gozo link within eight years

A survey found younger respondents to be more in favour to the construction of a tunnel than older respondents
A survey found younger respondents to be more in favour to the construction of a tunnel than older respondents

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has said he expects a proposed tunnel between Malta and Gozo to be ready in “seven to eight years” if the project goes according to plan.

It will be one of the most controversial infrastructural projects of the decade to come, with environmental NGOs already smarting at the proposal, which enjoys the backing of both political parties since it was originally mooted back in 2012.

Muscat was speaking at a press conference outlining the results of a social impact assessment carried out on the proposed tunnel link between Gozo and Malta. 

He said Labour was committed to the project, which has already been subjected to various feasibility studies, and a cost-benefit analysis by economist Gordon Cordina.

The project is being strongly pushed by the Gozo Business Chamber.

In January 2016, Norwegian experts were commissioned to provide technical expertise on the project, while meetings with the Environment and Resources Agency (ERA) and the Planning Authority (PA) were held in anticipation of applications for permits being submitted for investigative coring studies to start. 

In October 2016, an agreement was signed with the University of Malta for geological and geophysical studies for the conceptual design of the tunnel, with an expression of interest issued in the same month. 

This was followed by seismic investigations in November to determine what the seabed between Malta and Gozo was like and how this would impact the project.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Muscat said the government had also held discussions on the possibility of finding archaeological remains at the bottom of the seabed, which he added would need to be “preserved in the best way possible”.

In March 2017 the University presented its first report from the seismic investigations and in April the ERA and PA outlined the terms of reference and general permitting requirements for the ‘design, build, maintain and operate’ tender.

EU rules allow an appeal to be lodged up until the end of May on permits for coring to begin, but if this doesn’t happen digging can start, Muscat said.

Muscat insisted that the project was feasible and that it should happen.

“We believe we have the credibility to carry out massive projects like this,” he said. “We can’t keep Gozo waiting for the project however, and in the meantime, if elected, we will issue tender to start operating the fast-ferry service. 

Sensitive issues

Muscat said that while studies are being carried out and the developments on the tunnel were ongoing, there were still sensitive issues that needed to be discussed.

One such issue was where in Malta and Gozo the tunnel would emerge. 

“It’s not a matter as the tunnel starting at Mgarr and ending in Cirkewwa,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are certain road gradients that must be considered.”

Muscat said he was convinced there would be great international interest in the tender.

“We have already been approached, however we said there would be a tender and chose not to enter into negotiations,” Muscat said, who insisted that no estimated cost would be given for the project so as not to undermine the tendering process.

“We would like those applying to compete on price.”

Muscat also said the Italian, Spanish, Turkish and Chinese governments – all of which “have specialised companies” that can take on the project – had already been in contact with the Maltese government.

On the operation of the tunnel, Muscat said the intention was for the cost of using the tunnel to be similar to that of the current Gozo ferry.

“A government led by me would consider either paying for the project or having it built by the private sector in exchange for the chosen company to be given an operating contract.”

Social impact assessment 

Sociologist Marvin Formosa, who carried out the social impact assessment, said that Gozo was an island that suffered from “double insularity”, being geographically distant from Malta’s economic centre.

Among the factors which made the need for better connectivity with Malta a more pressing issue, was the fact that the island had an ageing population and its economy was to a large extent dependent on tourism, he said.

“The goal of the assessment was to analyse perceptions about the project among different stakeholders…. The analysis shows that a tunnel would lead to a ‘manageable increase’ in the island’s population, mainly due to Gozitan families choosing to remain in Gozo.

“A tunnel would also make it possible for Maltese families to spend more time in Gozo during the summer months without having to disrupt their work routine.”

As part of his study, Formosa carried out a survey among 250 Gozitans which found that 82% of respondents were in favour of the tunnel.

The survey found that younger respondents favoured the project more than older respondents and a similar trend was observed amongst those with different education and employment levels: those attaining a higher level or education and those in employment favoured the project. 

A perceived advantage of the tunnel would be the increase in Gozo’s economic and social capital. Formosa said that 4.4% of the survey’s respondents said there were no advantages to the tunnel while 46.6% said they could not think of any disadvantages.