Malta-Gozo tunnel plans shelved

Plans for a tunnel project between Malta and Gozo have lost momentum, with no commitment on the project

An ambitious plan to have the two islands of Malta and Gozo connected by a subsea tunnel has been shelved, government sources close to the controversial project have told MaltaToday.

The sources, privy to the consultation and plans that took place on the bipartisan project launched right before 2013, said the billion-euro tunnel project would not be taking place in the foreseeable future.

“Beyond the talks held by a committee appointed to oversee the studies and tenders on the project, there is absolutely no commitment on the project – COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have only helped seal further the fate of the tunnel,” the source told MaltaToday.

The tunnel, championed squarely by the Muscat administration but also by the Nationalist Party, which had first proposed it, but in recent years suggested that a final decision should be taken with a referendum among Gozitans, had already attracted four construction bids.

An evaluation committee was tasked to scrutinise the four bids to Infrastructure Malta: they were an Italian firm; a Maltese company with its primary shareholders being the Chetcutis of the Hugo’s entertainment chain; a consortium made up of Chinese, Dutch and Turkish companies; and a consortium of French, Turkish, UK and Japanese companies.

No timeline for the process was ever given for the second stage that follows the pre-qualification questionnaire.

The Gozo-Malta tunnel project would have been a 14-kilometre subsea road link between the two islands. Infrastructure Malta conducted nine studies, including preliminary geophysical and geological investigations based on land and seabed core samples extracted along the proposed tunnel route.

It has been a long-held Gozitan dream for a permanent link with Malta, with the first concrete studies in the 1970s dismissing the project as unfeasible. Environmentalists raised concerns about the impact the project could have on either side of the tunnel portals, apart from the pressure it will create in Gozo for more development.

Questions have also been raised on the amount of excavation waste that will be generated. Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech in 2022 floated the idea of holding a referendum among Gozitans after all tunnel studies are concluded.

This was shot down by the Gozo Business Chamber that has been clamouring for a permanent connection between the islands.

But even last week, the Malta Employers’ Association urged government to shelve expensive infrastructural projects, such as the Gozo tunnel and even its metro system, which it described as “airy-fairy”.

“The current strain on public finances calls for a rationalisation of expenditure to bring the deficit to manageable and sustainable levels,” MEA said.

Employers want the 2023 budget should focus on cutting wasteful government expenditure to bring finances back on track.

“Promises of large infrastructural projects – the Gozo Tunnel, the Metro and others – often accompanied by extravagant and expensive PR campaigns will have to be shelved in favour of more pressing infrastructural priorities, such as the distribution of electricity, infrastructure for electric mobility, and outdated and worn drainage systems in many parts of Malta,” MEA said.

While noting that the war in Ukraine shattered hopes of a quick post-Covid recovery, MEA said “shortages and supply-chain disruptions have inevitably raised prices of basic commodities.”

Pointing out that Maltese businesses are now facing pressure from two fronts, MEA said “on the one hand, the rising costs of raw materials and labour is pushing costs up and straining already weak profitability margins.

“On the other, there is the inflationary impact on aggregate demand as consumers struggle to rationalise consumption in anticipation of a drop in real disposable income resulting from the inflationary spike.”

Malta’s national debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach the maximum 60% limit permissible under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact by the end of the year. MEA said it was doubtful whether government revenues will increase at a rate sufficient to match its expenditure commitments.

Even Labour MEP and former prime minister Alfred Sant had raised concerns about overdevelopment in Gozo, slamming in particular projects for a Malta-Gozo tunnel and airport on the sister island.

“Too many people (most of them Gozitans) agree that development in Gozo has reached unsustainable levels. Of course, there is truth in what is being said.” He warned that Gozo was losing the qualities that made it attractive to visitors in the first place.

“The island is becoming a mini-Malta and it will lose the genuine value it held that helped attract visitors,” Sant said. “The problem is that there are too many ambiguous intentions in the market.”

Sant called out a contradiction in the attitudes of tourism promotors in Gozo, who on the one side worry about over-development, yet support government projects that would see more traffic and development on the island.

He mentioned the Malta-Gozo tunnel project and plans for a Gozo airport as such projects. “I can’t understand how serious tourism promotors in Gozo will, on one hand, worry about the ongoing development aspect of things, and on the other hand come out in favour of the monstrous project that appears to have been shelved – the tunnel between Malta and Gozo. Or [they would] be in favour of that project that has since been revived, although it should have been discarded altogether – that of an airport for passenger airplanes.”

There has never been a fixedwing service between Malta and Gozo, and the current heliport in Xewkija does not have a runway that is long enough to accommodate small aircraft.

In 1996, when Alfred Sant became prime minister, one of the first decisions he took was to stop the Gozo airport plans started by the previous administration.

However, current Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri insisted that the Labour government will build such an airfield. He recently tabled a site plan in Parliament which showed that the airstrip would extend beyond the perimeter of the existing heliport.