Tunnel under troubled water | Euchar Vella

Gozo’s connectivity problems are well-known; but is a sub-seabed tunnel the only viable solution? According to the Gozo Business Chamber’s EUCHAR VELLA, the answer is an emphatic  ‘yes’

Gozo Business Chamber member Euchar Vella. Photo: Chris Mangion
Gozo Business Chamber member Euchar Vella. Photo: Chris Mangion

There are some issues in this country that keep cropping up sporadically from time to time: flaring up as controversies, then retreating into the background, then flaring up again… but without ever actually materialising, and without ever dying out completely.

Oil exploration is one example. In the past, it was golf courses. But the one that has proved most persistent over the years is the proposal for a road-link between Malta and Gozo.

Some sort of ‘sub-seabed tunnel’ between the two islands has been in the pipeline – if you’ll excuse the awful pun – for years. But unlike earlier proposals (now largely forgotten) for a permanent airfield on Gozo, the tunnel proposal seems to have assumed greater credibility over the years. 

Various feasibility studies have emerged to claim that a tunnel is economically ‘viable’. The latest was presented by the Gozo Business Chamber only yesterday… and when I meet one of its members, Euchar Vella, to discuss its contents, it quickly becomes clear that this chamber really does mean business.

But first things first. The Gozo Chamber is determined to achieve this pipe-dream once and for all. Why, in its opinion, is a tunnel to Malta so important for Gozo?

“It’s important for both islands. This is not just about Gozo. That’s old talk. Gozo is part of Malta, and with the tunnel Gozo will improve Malta’s GDP. For those who travel there twice a year, this might not be an issue. The ferry offers them an experience…after all, it’s a boat cruise offering the best scenery. But for those who cross frequently – many on a daily basis – not having to spend an extra two hours daily in commuting, or two hours overtime or more leisure time makes a big difference. Unfortunately, many of these believe it’s too good to be true…”

From the perspective of the Gozo Chamber, he adds, many of the problems faced by Gozitan businesses ultimately stem from connectivity.

“When it comes to enterprise, how can we compete fairly, when besides having to pay for access to the Maltese road network, we also have to pay our employees an extra two hours daily? Then there are many issues with attracting new industries to Gozo. Many have flourished in Malta, while in Gozo they barely exist. For example, attracting conferences to Gozo. We have all the facilities in place... but the uncertainty of keeping to the strict timeframes, because of missing the ferry, makes the organiser automatically choose  Malta… I don’t blame them. Why the risk??

Then, he adds, there’s tourism. “A lot of tour operators don’t include Gozo on their schedules, because if they need to meet a tight deadline – for example, a flight at the airport – they know they can’t rely on the ferry service.”

Gozo’s connectivity issues are in fact well-known even in Brussels, where the European Commission recognises the argument for State subsidies to the Gozo Channel Line.

But this, Vella argues, does not address the problem itself. “How long are we going to keep asking for subsidies to address the issue of connectivity? We don’t want to play the victims, always moaning for government aid. We just want to be Maltese, like all the others.”

The Gozo Business Chamber yesterday unveiled a feasibility study, authored by economist Gordon Cordina, on various options for a permanent link. It concluded that a sub-seabed tunnel is by far the cheapest and most reliable option, when compared to a bridge. 

At a glance, this does not seem to make much sense. The report provides very specific estimates for capital expenditure on both scenarios: 800 million for a bridge, and only 300 million for a tunnel.

Yet at the same time, this study (like a previous study by Mott MacDonald) also points out that further geological studies are required to determine the cost structure.

Isn’t that a contradiction? If more studies are required to know the actual cost, how can we be so certain that a tunnel will turn out cheaper? And how did the report arrive at such specific figures anyway, in the absence of the necessary information?”

“The report gave three options, not two. And more importantly the tunnel works out cheaper also than the ferries,” Vella replies. “The first option is to keep the ferry service, which will soon be due to be replaced. In six to eight years’ time the current ferries will have to be decommissioned, and new ones bought…”

Turning to the computation of figures, he disagrees that there is not enough information. 

“When you are thinking of doing a project, you first look at the high level figures; then, if proven viable, you invest in further studies. The Geological Maps of the Maltese Islands, drawn up by the British in 1955, are detailed enough to tell us where the faults are, and what kind of material exists at various depths. Again, we acted conservatively and decided to go 25m deeper just to make sure that we pass through the lower Coralline segment, the same material extracted for aggregates in the Qala quarries. You need to avoid passing through soft clay to keep costs down…”

The bridge estimates were lifted from a study conducted by the China Communications Construction Company in 2014

“When it came to the tunnel option, we looked at what has been happening in Norway. It is the country with the largest number of sub-seabed road tunnels in the world. There are 30 already in operation, and another 15 under construction. All together Europe has not built half this number. This has been going on since 1985: ironically before we commissioned the present ferries, designed in Norway.”

Based on Norway’s experience, and with adjustments for inflation to today, the costs never exceeded €13,670 per running metre: which in Malta’s case is equivalent to a maximum of €164 million for a 12km, three-lane, single tube tunnel.

“The €13,670/km benchmark is their very worst case scenario imaginable… that is, very poor rock conditions. To be ultra-prudent, we almost doubled it to 300 million…”

But cheaper than the ferry service? How is that possible? Admittedly, the fleet will have to be replaced. Yet how can a project estimate to cost around 300 million be cheaper than buying (or building) three new ferry boats?

“On the level of capital expenditure, it isn’t. The sum required to change all three ferries is 120 million, although the increase in traffic dictates that a fourth vessel will be needed. But this was not taken into consideration. It’s the operational costs which is the answer. The fuel, wage, maintenance and depreciation costs are by far more than that of a tunnel or even a bridge. Then there is also another cost many tend to ignore. In a few years’ time we will have to start paying for the pollution we create. Again the tunnel came out the cleanest. Ships are major pollutants…”

What sort of operational costs are we talking about for a tunnel, anyway? I imagine it includes maintenance work on a tunnel situated 100 metres below sea level. Doesn’t sound cheap.

“Again, we were conservative in our estimates. The Norwegians run their tunnels at not more than 1% of the capital cost per year. These are not estimates, but actual running costs. Taking €300 million as the capital cost, in our case that’s a maximum of €3 million a year. We shot this figure up to €9 million, to be absolutely on the safe side.”

Interestingly, he adds that the more time passes, the lower this recurring expenditure becomes in practice. The reason proves to be a little complicated. Vella explains that the pressure of the sea above causes water to invariably seep into the tunnel, which in turn must be pumped out. In time, organic growth in the tunnel rock cover – mostly algae – seals off the fissures and reduces water ingress.

“Let’s be clear on this, not to cause any misunderstandings. There is no visual water seepage; it all drains behind the lining/cover of the tunnel circumference. It drains into channels and is collected in a reservoir at the bottom of the tunnel by gravity, from where it is pumped out.  

But is this the only maintenance required in a sub-seabed tunnel? Vella shakes his head. “No, there are others. Ventilation, lighting, tolling system, management, stand by emergency crew… the asphalt will also have to be replaced from time to time…there is also basic maintenance which has to be carried out in non-busy hours. But pumping out water seepage is the one that consumes the most energy, In Norway, for instance, they do it at night, to avail of cheaper night tariffs….”

All the same, he insists that these costs are much lower than either ferry or bridge

“What emerges from our feasibility study is that, yes: even with the most conservative estimates, the tunnel option is most viable and the cheapest option. The government is moving fast on it too. Ferries replacement is imminent so there is no luxury of time available.  

At the same time, Vella seems to be presenting the choice as an either/or scenario. But if, for argument’s sake, the government goes ahead with the tunnel option… it will still have to replace the ferry service anyway. Even if unviable, the sea link is strategically important in its own right…

Vella nods. “Yes, without any doubt. What we are saying is that, the experience of going to Gozo by ferry – at least, for tourists, Maltese and people who don’t make the trip every day, like us – is something we want to retain. It’s a big plus point for Gozo. And it’s important even for the first impressions people get of the island…”

Vella suggests a clause in the eventual tender for the tunnel service, that would oblige the successful bidder to also run the ferry service at his own expense… provided that no other operator wants to take it on as a private business venture.

This proposal, he argues, virtually guarantees a continued ferry service either way. “It could be profitable, it could be loss-making, but that’s not the issue. What we did is that we laminated 20% of the projected traffic to remain by ferry even if it is loss-making. The Norwegians thought we were mad when we told them this; everywhere they opened a tunnel, the existing ferry service shut down. But we said no: the ferries are important to us, and have to stay. Even for the simple reason that some people might be claustrophobic, and refuse to drive through an underwater tunnel...”

But not, he quickly adds, in their present form. “With a tunnel in place, the new ferries would be much smaller, take fewer cars, etc. This would also free up space in Mgarr and Cirkewwa harbours, which might create opportunities for facilities like yacht marinas, international sea terminals etc…”

Vella takes the opportunity to deflect concerns for the fate of Gozo Channel’s current employees.

“Not a single Gozo Channel employee will lose employment. The majority will reach retirement age before the tunnel’s operational opening date. Others will stay on to operate the smaller ferry service operation. Others will be deployed to the tunnel operation…”

Leaving aside financial considerations, there are other causes for concern. Vella himself mentioned one already: Gozo’s tourism factor. Isn’t there a danger that the island’s intrinsic charm might be threatened by the sudden accessibility to an exponentially higher number of cars than ever before? Wouldn’t this open the floodgates to the type of issues – traffic, over-development, etc. – that have already swallowed up so much of Malta?

Vella acknowledges such concerns, and to a degree shares them himself. 

“If it opens the floodgates, as you put it, making it toll free… yes, that worries us. But it could just as easily be that nothing will happen at all. There are many rural villages in Malta that have still kept their character, even though they have full accessibility to central Malta. Look at Dingli and Mgarr [Malta], for instance. They’re still rural, though anyone can drive there whenever they like. For all the talk, no one has proven the same does not apply to Gozo….”

The example brings him to another issue that a permanent link (of any kind) would address once and for all: discrimination.

“In Gozo’s case there will also be a toll to pay to use the connecting road. Isn’t this discrimination? You don’t have to pay to drive to anywhere in Malta. I have a right, like the entire Maltese do, not to pay to drive through the streets to get to work. Why should a Gozitan pay? That’s discrimination, right there…but nothing will happen if there is no profit incentive to have the private sector investing and running it.”

Is this sentiment widespread in Gozo? He shrugs. “It depends. If you ask an elderly Gozitan woman who never goes to Malta, and never uses the ferry… no. But if you ask the people taking the ferry every day at 5am, you might get a different answer.”

He pauses. “My message to Gozitans, however, is this. It’s useless complaining without taking action. For the first time something will be done. Inform yourself with facts, not the hatred of some blogs…”

He talks about the certainty of this project with incredible confidence. Are we talking about a fait accompli? After all, both Labour and Nationalist Parties are openly in favour…

“The question now is no longer if it can be done, or if it’s viable. These have already been surpassed by studies. Now it’s a question of when it will be ready and how we will manage it for the best interest of Gozo and Malta itself. If we stay united, we can have it operating in full swing in less than five years. Believe and convince yourself that this will happen…”