[WATCH] Aaron Farrugia: ‘It’s more than just road projects’

He deals with road projects, traffic and public transport. But he also handles the maritime sector and is steering government’s plans for land reclamation. Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia speaks to KURT SANSONE about his portfolio that hits several of this country’s nerve centres

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi)
Transport and Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi)

Aaron Farrugia has no regrets for banning rental e-scooters and says current circumstances make a metro unfeasible but instead government is investing more in public transport.  

The Transport Minister defends government’s multi-million-euro spend on road infrastructure but insists millions more have been earmarked for alternative mobility. And next year, he says, government will extend free public transport to the ferry service within the Grand and Marsamxett harbours. 

He captains a highly visible ministry that includes roads and traffic. It is with the latter that I kick off this interview. 

I ask him about the frustration caused by traffic congestion despite the big projects that transformed the road network over the past decade. 

He does not flinch. The government embarked on a path of economic growth in 2013 and the investment in road infrastructure mirrored the country’s needs, he says. 

“What would be the situation today had we not invested in those road projects? We would have gridlock everywhere. The projects have benefitted road users,” Farrugia adds. 

He acknowledges traffic is a headache in Malta just as it is for all his European counterparts, especially in cities. But he insists that apart from road construction projects to improve Malta’s Ten-T road network, government is doing a lot to encourage a modal shift. 

“Last year alone, the government invested €72 million in free public transport… we added 30 new electric buses to the fleet, which gave us 410 new trips a day,” he says. 

On the metro, Farrugia says the cost to build it has ballooned to €8 billion and more and current circumstances make it unfeasible. 

“It’s not a definite no but for the time being any investment must be done in infrastructure that exists such as public transport, incentives to encourage people to ditch their car, improvements in the road network, and the creation of a cycling and pedestrian network,” he says. 

From 1 March 2024, a ban on rental e-scooters comes into effect with the minister saying the drastic decision was needed because operators refused to cooperate and clamp down on errant users. 

On government’s land reclamation plans, which he intends to present to the Planning Authority in the new year, Farrugia says these will be a mix of industry-related projects and spaces for the public to enjoy. He hints that a super yacht marina may be one of the proposals.

The following is an excerpt from the interview.

So far, the government has dangled the carrot by providing free public transport… 

I disagree. We have also offered parents of school age children the option to use free school transport but only 35% use it. I would like to see this percentage grow to 60%, 70% and 80%; it would make a big difference during the rush hour if more children use school transport… the Civil Service has led the way with incentives for people to work from home… We plan to invest €35 million in the coming years to create [dedicated routes] for cyclists and pedestrians…

Motorists would argue you will be investing money in cycling routes that no one will use. 

Every day, I receive contrasting and diametrically opposed messages - cycling enthusiasts tell me not enough is being done, while others urge me to remove cycling lanes to allow cars to pass freely. The country needs to move forward and I have to find a just balance between the differing opinions… But we are also investing in maritime transport… [next year] we will be experimenting with making sea transport free for Tal-Linja card users. This will encourage people to use sea transport to get around the island. It will cost money but I believe it is a wise investment.

If you want the bus to be efficient on the road, you have to remove on-street parking to create dedicated bus lanes. You can also introduce parking metres to create a disincentive for people to use their private car. Is government considering introducing such measures in certain areas? 

There are different measures that can be introduced to discourage people from using their car…. we will be introducing more timed parking zones across the country… it serves to discourage people from using their car and consider using free public transport instead if they are going to spend time in a zone where they can only park for a maximum of two hours in the same spot… next year we will also be issuing a call for those interested in providing parking lots, ideally on the periphery so that we can remove cars from our village cores.

Has the metro project been abandoned? Was it just a pre-electoral gimmick? 

The government had opted for a mass public transport system and engaged Arup to study the creation of a metro. Arup carried out a technical and geological study and found that the project is doable. The consultants also estimated the overall cost at €6 billion without outlining the financing models to make this happen. My ministry was exploring the different economic models to finance the project. In a post-COVID world prices of certain things shot up and the €6 billion sum ballooned substantially… at present, the world financial climate does not make sense for the government to continue looking at this project. This is not the right time to go for a project that would cost €8 billion or more…

What motivated your drastic decision to stop rental e-scooters from March next year when you previously had championed them as an alternative means of transport? 

We are happy with those who own an e-scooter (around 5% of the e-scooters on the road) because they were careful not to infringe road safety rules. But hundreds of contraventions were issued to rental e-scooters for infringements that endangered people’s safety… driving on arterial roads and through tunnels; three people on one scooter, excessive speed… this was a bigger headache than the more visible inconvenience caused by badly parked scooters… To top it all, operators were contesting each and every fine and this irked government; it was an insult to government, the country and those who used e-scooters. Operators should have turned onto those who rented e-scooters and recouped the fines from errant users… but they refused… on 1 March, rental e-scooters will stop operating and we will provide incentives to those who want to buy their own personal scooter instead.

On land reclamation what will government present to the Planning Authority next year? Will it be one project; several projects; projects for a public purpose? 

Real estate is not part of the plans. We are looking at projects that target industry, others that create space that families can enjoy, and others that are a mix of the two… the zones are already known… the two studies carried out in the past identified among others the coastal area off Xgħajra and the sea off Qalet Marku in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq and another location in Gozo… there are six locations in all and we have to see how ambitious we will be as a government…