Roadmaps to nowhere | Angelo Xuereb

Traffic remains a seemingly insoluble problem in Malta, but entrepreneur Angelo Xuereb has a good idea why. We spend too much energy on consultancy reports, and too little on action

Entrepreneur Angelo Xuereb (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)
Entrepreneur Angelo Xuereb (Photo: Chris Mangion/MediaToday)

There is something to be said about getting stuck in traffic on my way to an interview with Angelo Xuereb, specifically on the subject of Malta’s traffic crisis. Luckily for me, I heeded Xuereb’s advice on the phone the previous day, and planned my approach to the Lija-Mosta bypass a good two hours ahead of schedule.

This way, I only got there five minutes late... to find Xuereb awaiting me armed with files upon files of official documents on the subject of traffic management in Malta. 

“There have been around 60 reports about traffic in the last 10 years,” he begins. “And there were five master plans. Just think how much taxpayer money was spent on all these studies. And what was the result? We are worse off than we were before. So something is clearly wrong...”

Xuereb rifles through a particular file. “Here are two recent reports: a strategy for transport in Malta, to be implemented 2050; and the other, a master plan for 2025. That’s only 14 years down the line.  If there’s something I’ve been talking about for the past 20 years, it is the need to do something about traffic in Malta. What I can tell you today is: if there is not going to be anybody to own these plans, and take the lead... we will end up with yet another expensive report on the shelf, gathering dust.”

He hands me one of these reports, and refers me to a particular section highlighted in orange. “This graph represents the crucial issue. Malta spends only 60% of the EU average on transport and infrastructure. In all the graphs comparing Malta’s expenditure on transport, we are by far the lowest in Europe. The only exception was when we joined, where for one year our expenditure exceeded the European advantage. You can understand why. But since then, we have slipped to the bottom of every list...”

He skims a few pages to another highlighted paragraph. “This is interesting, too. By 2050, the amount of productive work-time lost because of traffic will cost the country 1.28 billion each year. Each year, please note... equivalent to 8.2% of Malta’s GDP. That is huge. On top of that, you have the issue of pollution. Look at this other map: it’s alarming...”

The map marks heavy pollution in deepening shades of red. The entire north/central part of the island looks as though someone spilt red ink all over it. 

“This is a health hazard. We need to do something about it. On my part, I prepared a report: ‘Action Plan to Mitigate the Traffic Problem’. I gave them practical solutions. All the studies I’m mentioning here... they only give a general overview. By coincidence, just this morning I received a press release from the GRTU. ‘Traffic situation unacceptable... crisis needs immediate solution’. See? They, too are talking generically. ‘We need to solve the problem’... yes, of course we do. The question is, how?”

It is a question Xuereb has tried to answer on several occasions in the past. Some 15 years ago, he proposed a circular railway system (metro and monorail) servicing the central part of the island, linked to the existing bus network. Later he will explain how the original plans have been upgraded and simplified in line with recent developments. 

All the same, neither Xuereb’s proposals, nor even the aforementioned  consultants’ reports, have ever translated into any practical solution. Why does the Naxxar-born entrepreneur expect the government to react positively to his proposals, when it has ignored the recommendations even of its own commissioned reports?

“I don’t want to criticise whoever drew up these reports. The data they contain is very interesting and useful. But foreign consultants, while they know a lot about traffic in general, are not familiar with the local roads. They don’t know the specific problems, so they can only speak in generic terms. As for my own report... well, there was a time I used to do 100 miles a day in my car in Malta. Miles, not kilometres. These days I don’t drive that much... but I still know Malta inside out. I can even name you all the potholes we have: that’s how well I know our roads.  So I’m in a position to take a more practical point of view...”

Before turning to the specifics of his plan, Xuereb outlines the need for a change in the country’s systemic approach to the problem.

“A master plan for traffic can only work if it is agreed upon by both sides of the House. One side made a mess of it before, the other side is making a mess of it now... and who’s suffering? The people. They need to agree. This is a national problem. And then, once we have consensus on the plan itself, there has to be someone – or a team – in place to make it work...”

But there already are entities that are supposedly responsible for operations. Isn’t that the job of Transport Malta, for instance?

“Unfortunately, TM has a lot on its plate. Either they can’t cope, or they don’t have the knowledge and power to implement their plans. If you have the knowledge and the power, you could in one week do some of the things I propose here. Others might take months. Some might take one year. There are long-term objectives that can only be achieved in 10 years. But if you don’t start even the short-term projects...”

Xuereb breaks off to outline a few of what he calls the simpler problems. “At Mater Dei Hospital, all outpatients are given an appointment for 7am. It’s like the law courts: it doesn’t matter when you will be seen, the appointment is given to everyone at the same time.  So they’re basically telling everyone to go there – by bus, by car, whatever – by 7am. In the rush hour. Why not start at 9am? And why not give out proper appointments: at 9, 9.30, 10, 10.30, and so on? On top of causing unnecessary traffic, you’re also wasting people’s time...”

While still in the area, Xuereb points towards University as another traffic magnet. “Today, everyone at University has a car. Why do they start lectures at 8? Why not at 9? You don’t have to be Einstein to work out that it would ease traffic congestion...”

I imagine he would have no difficulty convincing the students to back him on that one... 

“Yes, it will benefit everybody,” he replies with a laugh. “But there are other things too. The people who water plants on roundabouts... at 8am. It’s bad enough that the junctures themselves would be jam-packed at that time. But you also have bowsers blocking entire lanes, so that they can water the plants. How difficult is this to solve? All you need is a phone-call to the agriculture department, or whoever’s responsible, to tell them that from tomorrow, no watering is to take place before 9am. Same with Mater Dei and University. All it takes is a phone call...”  

All this sounds sensible and would probably make a significant difference, too. But aren’t we also missing the wood for the trees? The real unspoken issue regarding traffic in Malta is the unsustainable number of cars on the roads...

“Yes, definitely. The examples I gave you are of things that can be done in less than a month. There’s a lot more to come. Another thing I am suggesting is to cap the number of cars. Buy one car, and scrap another. We cannot keep increasing the number of cars... and to make matters worse, it is the number of old cars that are increasing. The second-hand car market is growing, which means more pollution. We should be going in the opposite direction: raising taxes on second-hand cars, and legislating so that car dealers have to scrap an old car for every new one they sell. The expense would be factored into the price of the new car. If someone can buy a car for 30,000 euros, they can buy one for 31,000...”

This leads Xuereb to another statistic from the master plan. “The average age of cars in Malta is 13.8 years. I see that on the low side myself. But still: according to the report, Malta should reach the average vehicle age of 8.2 years by 2030. That’s quite a jump, from 14% to 8% in 14 years. How are we going to manage, when the average vehicle age is getting older not younger? Unless we start introducing tax disincentives for old cars, we will never get there...”

Turning to the infrastructure, Xuereb also complains that there are not enough results to show for the areas where we did invest: namely, the roads. He produces a map of the main roundabout at Targa Gap, which branches off in four directions: Rabat, Mosta, Salina/St Paul’s Bay and Mgarr. Highlighted in red ink are additional (proposed) lanes joining two of the routes on either side of the roundabout. 

“These are express routes,” he says, indicating the imaginary lanes with a pencil. “Let’s say you were driving to Mgarr from Rabat: why should you wait at the roundabout for all the traffic that is heading to Mosta or St Paul’s Bay? You just use the express route and carry on going. And it isn’t difficult to do. Just a few metres of road. It could be done in a week...”

He turns to another map, this time of the Burmarrad roundabout. “You will surely be familiar with this one. There are five main arterial roads all leading to this one roundabout. One of them is the Coast Road, which has just been redone. They did a very nice job of the road, I agree. But when you get to the end of it on the Qawra side, you have to wait for everyone on that roundabout. In summer, there will be a traffic jam all the way to Mosta. All you need is an exit route here, so you cut past the roundabout altogether. Same on the other side. The only thing this bit of road will pass through is some landscaping...”

Another problem, he adds, is that we’re investing in the wrong areas. “If you look at recent roadworks, they’re all long, straight roads that are being resurfaced. The problem is not long, straight roads. You never see traffic on the straight; only at the junctions. Yet when they did the Mosta bypass, it ends in a T-junction leading to another main road. Not even a roundabout...”

I can now confirm that Xuereb’s earlier boast was no bluff. For the next 20 minutes he will give me a guided tour of several arterial traffic choke points – some of which I didn’t even know existed – all printed out as maps in his report. In nearly all cases, he argues that a simple, inexpensive bit of infrastructural surgery could help alleviate the problem.

“But these are the short- to medium-term objectives. Ultimately, the main goal should be to encourage people to use public transport...”

This brings us to the more radical aspects of his proposed reform. Xuereb has long been insisting that Malta needs a railway system to complement the bus service.  Given that this would necessitate considerable capital outlay, how feasible is this proposal? 

“It is feasible. But it has to an integrated, efficient public transportation system. Otherwise it would be money down the drain. A monorail on its own will not work. My proposal is to split Malta into three areas: north, central and south. Each would have an interchange station. In the north I would place it near Mater Dei and the University. Another station in Marsa, near the site of the proposed business park. The third next to the Dockyard. Buses, on the other hand, will circulate towns and villages, so that people don’t have to walk more than five minutes to the nearest stop. Passengers would be taken straight, without stopping, to the nearest station. Only long routes, like from St Paul’s Bay, would make a few stops on the way. Let’s make it practical...”

It sounds impressive on paper, but is it doable on a financial level? Would the private sector be ready to invest in something like this?

“It would have to be subsidised. Public transport is a loss-maker all over the world. The EU, through Horizons 2020, makes large funds available to issues of mobility: and specifically, mobility in towns. So EU funding exists. And we’re not talking the same outlay that would be involved in a bridge or tunnel to Gozo. The latest I’ve heard is 2.5 billion. By my calculations, a monorail system wouldn’t cost more than half a billion. Closer to 300 million, in fact. The bulk of the expense concerns the stations: lifts, escalators, software systems, etc. The actual tunnelling could be done for 55 million. It’s less expensive than people think; unless it’s underwater. In fact the only area where it would have to be overhead is Marsa. It would be too expensive to tunnel below sea-level...”

But if it is so inexpensive and feasible – as are the other suggestions for express routes – how does he account for the fact that all such proposals (not only his own) have fallen on deaf ears? 

He shrugs. “Ask the politicians. My impression is that in government, there aren’t many people who are technical. So they rely on consultants. Even then, however... do you think the minister actually read this report?” [He indicates the master plan for 2050]. “I don’t think he did. He doesn’t have the time. That’s why you need to get somebody to take ownership. Like permanent secretaries, for instance. Do you ever hear about permanent secretaries? They are supposed to be the ones who run the operations. In my corporation, I have an operations manager... and then there is the board, the general manager, the CEO, etc. In the government’s case, we know who the CEO is, but... who is the operations manager? It cannot be the minister himself. His job is to draw up policy. The operations manager has to be technical... someone competent, capable, and who has the guts, determination and knowledge to get the job done. And he has to be adequately remunerated, too. Because that’s another problem. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you give meat, you get lions...”

So is it a case of government failing to attract the right people? “Partly. It is also because the minister always wants to be the one to be seen. If there is a new development, it will be the minister who announces it. In the eyes of the people, he’s the one in charge. So if the permanent secretary feels he doesn’t have any importance... he’s not going to take ownership. Why should he?  Now: if I appoint an operations manager, I would give him clear responsibilities and duties, and a salary to match. I would expect a detailed list of aims and targets… and every year, I would assess how many of them were achieved. If it’s 75% per cent... that’s good. But if it’s less than 50% of his own plan, that’s a problem. I’d give him a yellow card for that year... and if it happens again, the red card the next. This is the real problem: there isn’t that level of accountability in government.”