The roads go ever on

Transport and Infrastructure Minister, IAN BORG, is coy about his own future political aspirations, but outspoken in defence of controversial infrastructure projects such as the redevelopment of the Rabat Road, and his government’s public transport achievements 

Transport Minister Ian Borg
Transport Minister Ian Borg

The Times recently ran a story that 200 mature Aleppo pines would be uprooted in the vicinity of Saqqaja Hill. Your ministry claimed this was a case of ‘fake news’. Yet the original plans, submitted to the Planning Authority, did indeed indicate that intention... only for new plans to be submitted afterwards. How, therefore, can that news story be described as ‘fake’?

First of all, it would be good to explain what this project is about. This is a project that has been in the pipeline for decades: since the end of the 1980s. For various reasons, which I cannot answer for myself, my predecessors decided to leave it on the shelf. The aim is to connect the north of the island – localities such as Mosta, Mgarr, Rabat, Mtarfa, Dingli, Zebbug, Siggiewi – with Attard, Hal-Lija, Hal Balzan, L-Iklin... and eventually, Birkirkara and Mriehel. At present the ‘corridor’ of Attard has become a bottleneck: all the vehicles passing through, especially in the early morning, end up going round what is effectively a village centre... so not only does it slow down the traffic in general, but it also contributes to air pollution, with the result that the families in Attard are suffering. We need to implement this project, to continue improving the traffic situation in the centre of the country. After works have been done on the Coast Road and Kappara, Marsa is on the way... but in the centre, no interventions have been carried out.

No one is contesting the need for this project; it is the proposed intervention itself that has raised questions...

[Nodding] The issue of trees. We are talking about a process of application, between the applicant – Transport Malta – and the regulatory authority, which in this case is the Planning Authority. In such applications, it is common practice for architects to submit tentative plans, according to the consultations taking place in the background. These [plans] were the first set of plans, drawn up by external architects, after consultation – both internally, on the part of government, and also with other authorities: namely, the Environment and Resources Authority – that concluded it was unacceptable to uproot those Aleppo pines. In fact, we had asked for a revision of the plans...

But was this request made before, or after the plans came out in public?

There is where the problem lies. The TM architect submitted the first set of plans, not the second. Internally, we need to see how this mistake occurred... and I don’t doubt it was a mistake. But on that Saturday morning, when the news was reported...  I was the first to be shocked; and I checked with Transport Malta. A few minutes later – you can check the PA file – the new set of plans was uploaded. You don’t draw up new plans in a few minutes. Those plans had already been revised. Where I think the journalist made a mistake – I’m not an expert in media; I’ll leave it to MaltaToday readers to draw their own conclusions – is that he could have asked the authorities to confirm whether those plans, which he quietly intended to publish front-page, on Saturday morning, were the ones government had approved. We would have told him: ‘No. There are other plans, which we discussed on the understanding that those trees are to be respected, and not uprooted.’ Following that, however: that is, a few minutes after the story was published, and we uploaded the up-to-date plans... we still carried on improving the project. On Wednesday, we announced that only 15 trees would be affected. And still we carried on improving... now, only three trees will be removed.

All the same, the original plans had been submitted to the PA; and the PA takes its decisions on the basis of the plans submitted. If that story hadn’t appeared... would those improvements have taken place?

The PA will decide on the basis of the final plans submitted by the applicant. The final plans have not been submitted yet. In the meantime, consultation will continue... and I can assure you that in the final plans, only three trees between the chapel of Attard and Rabat will be affected. But let’s not talk only about the negative aspects: we will also be planting an additional 300 mature trees. The bottom line is that the people finally have a government that will be implementing this project; and this project will mean less time spent in traffic; less emissions; and from a road which had 300 trees, it will now have 600.

Earlier you mentioned that this project has been in the pipeline for 30 years. Why do you think previous administrations put it on the backburner for so long?

Without a doubt, there are a number of residents who are resisting the project. But they know – or would have known, when they bought their properties or moved to that area – that the road in front of them was earmarked for this project. And it’s not just any old street, but a major arterial road... and this project had been included in all the local plans, including the most recent ones drawn up in 2006: the ones that still govern us today. That year, parliament, once again, decided that the Rabat road had to be upgraded. But we didn’t focus only on the Attard bottleneck; that’s why we included Mriehel. To solve one bottleneck, while leaving the others as they are, would not make sense. It would only cause the project to fail...

Traffic has been a dominant issue for some time now, as repeatedly evidenced by surveys; yet it seems that the approach adopted by all governments to date has been to extend/improve the existing road network. In such a small country, this inevitably translates into a trade-off between new (or wider) roads, and the natural environment. Isn’t this a short-sighted strategy?

I disagree with that on two counts. You mentioned surveys; since last October, MaltaToday surveys have shown that public concern with traffic has decreased by half in the last eight months. It could be because of certain projects carried out over that period, which resulted in a perceived improvement. It could also be that other concerns ‘overtook’ traffic... one of them possibly being the environment. But the concern, in itself, has diminished. The second thing I disagree with is that past governments always widened roads, or addressed bottlenecks. I’d say it’s the other way round... in the 1990s and early 2000s, Nationalist governments were narrowing roads, not widening them. If the idea was to facilitate some other project, or out of environmental concerns, I’d understand. But to simply extend pavements without any proper planning, or to build roundabouts that can easily accommodate an entire football pitch... that’s something else.

The PA will decide on the basis of the final plans submitted by the applicant... I can assure you that in the final plans, only three trees between the chapel of Attard and Rabat will be affected

You’re referring to works carried out in the early 1990s, in conjunction with a German consultancy firm. It was a long time ago. Even so, however, the emphasis was (and still is) on roads. It is as though the primary concern of all governments is to encourage and facilitate car-ownership and use as much as possible...

The reality is that there isn’t a single solution to such a complex challenge. To address bottlenecks, sometimes you might have to widen the road... sometimes, to reduce certain structures in the road. But it’s not a solution to all traffic-related problems. It is a short-term solution; there is still the medium- and long-term approach. Every country that aspires to have efficient mobility of persons – because people need to move: to get to work, to relax and enjoy their free time, to meet family and friends etc. – needs an efficient public transport system. Bear in mind that when we started out, the statistics were frightening. In 2011/2, when bus service was switched to an external operator under the Nationalist administration, the number of people making use of the service [calculated on a trips-per-year basis] was 23 million. In 2017, we closed the year with 50 million passengers... more than double. I think the issue facing public transport today – because, while things have improved a lot, we’re not quite there yet – is the ‘positive’ problem, so to speak, that we are now at saturation point. We now need to address the challenge of capacity. Our fleet of 400 buses... can it cope with the 50 million passengers we have today? We’ve taken initiatives in that regard; today, those aged 16-20 are given a whole year’s worth of free public transport.  But then... does giving away a free service automatically mean that the bus is going to arrive on time? That it will take you where you want to go? Does it mean that the experience of using the service is a positive one? Will those people continue using public transport? These are also issues we need to address.

Before the last election, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi had announced a study into the viability of an underground/monorail train service. What were the results of that study? Is your government still looking into alternative systems of mass-transit?

I can confirm that the study is at an advanced stage. Transport Malta had engaged AREP – a London-based public transport consultancy firm that needs no introduction – and I hope that in the near future we will be able to sit down with AREP, review the situation, and take a decision on the basis of those studies...

Meanwhile, there seems to be a certain reluctance to ever seriously consider alternatives to road-based systems. There are also powerful industry interests involved, that are widely known to exert influence on political parties: car importers, building contractors, etc. Is there resistance to alternative public transport from the current players?

I don’t think there is any particular resistance, no. I think it has more to do with the fact that they [underground railway systems] cost a lot more than most people think. You have to take the budgetary aspects into consideration; as well as how certain sectors of the economy would be affected. Also, we are talking about projects which will yield dividends in 20, 30 years’ time. I think those, possibly, are the reasons why previous governments may have been reluctant ...

But that suggests a political motive: political parties think in five-year terms, not 20 or 30 years...

I was talking about the past, however. In the present, there is no resistance or reluctance. The studies are under way. I’ve occupied this ministry for a year, and I am confident that AREP is doing a good job... Transport Malta is doing a good job... we need to wait for the results of the studies, and take it from there...

Are there any time-frames?

No, no specific time-frames.

Another ‘project’ that was mentioned involved an eventual transition from the internal combustion engine, to vehicles running on renewable energy. Yet while your government is committed to this policy, we are seeing the PA issuing more permits for new petrol stations: often in ODZ areas. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

Let’s state facts as they stand: Malta, along with Europe and the rest of world, is working towards establishing a date – in some countries, this has already been established – after which it will no longer be permitted to import vehicles running on petrol or diesel. In the meantime, however, those cars that are already here, still need petrol or diesel. We are already incentivising car-owners to turn to greener technologies... but I think the sentiment you expressed in that question is a general sentiment, which the government has understood. So much so, that this year, my government – both the Environment Ministry, which drafted the first amendments, as well as myself as Transport Minister –  has given the PA directions to amend the existing fuel stations policy, to ensure they are more sustainable... so that they genuinely provide a service to the country, and not just become a game of land-speculation.

But just as we are discussing a cut-off date for fuel-consuming cars... shouldn’t there also be a cut-off date for fuel stations?

And what about the 380,000 vehicles already on the road... mine, yours, the ones belonging to your readers...?

Petrol stations already exist; I’m talking about new ones, especially those which have a huge impact on the environment: for instance, two enormous petrol stations within 50 metres of each other, on the same road....

Those are the cases that need to be looked into. And they are being looked into: the Planning Executive Council is in the process of drawing up a new policy on petrol stations. Once the policy reaches the desired aims, I will endorse it.

One last question concerning the political situation in general. Joseph Muscat has repeatedly indicated that he plans to step down as Prime Minister in the near future – though exactly when remains unclear. This would create a leadership vacuum for the Labour Party... by any chance, do you intend to try and fill it yourself?

[Laughing] ‘By any chance’ is not a question...

It’s a hypothetical question, but a valid one nonetheless. Do you have future leadership aspirations?

First of all, it is true the Prime Minister made certain statements along the lines of ‘when the right time comes’... but he didn’t specify when. As for myself, I hope that the people’s appreciation of this government’s performance – and the Prime Minister’s work in particular – will result in him serving this country for many more years to come.