Gozo tunnel receives bipartisan support from MPs without studies being published

PN presents cosmetic amendments to motion seeking support for Gozo tunnel project but Chris Said says party is 'wholeheartedly' behind the project • Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg says studies will be published in the coming days

Gozo tunnel has received bipartisan support in Parliament but the PN MPs insisted that scientific studies and assessments should be made public
Gozo tunnel has received bipartisan support in Parliament but the PN MPs insisted that scientific studies and assessments should be made public

The Gozo tunnel project has received backing from the Nationalist Party with Parliament approving a motion put forward by ministers Ian Borg and Justyne Caruana seeking support for the major infrastructural endeavour.

All MPs apart from those representing Partit Demokratiku, PD leader Godfrey Farrugia and PD MP Marlene Farrugia, voted in favour of the motion.

PN spokesperson for Gozo Chris Said put forward a number of cosmetic amendments to the wording of the motion but assured the House the party was "wholeheartedly" behind the project. Parliament approved half of these amendments, three out of six.

The two Democratic Party MPs opposed the project, insisting not enough information was available to determine whether it was feasible.

The vote in support of the tunnel cements the political consensus for this ambitious and controversial project.

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg and Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana tabled the motion last week, in what was an unorthodox move. Caruana opened the debate by pointing out that there was going to be an element of continuity.

A Labour administration will be finishing what a Nationalist administration had started—the project was originally the brainchild of former PN minister Chris Said.

“Whatever the strength of the argument for the economy, the human element always gets priority. The Gozo tunnel will improve the lives of hundreds of Gozitan families,” she said.

Quoting the social impact assessment on the proposed project, Caruana said that one of the recommendations posited is a Gozo infrastructure watchdog—this, she said, would come in the form of the Gozo Regional Development Authority that the PN had voted against.

“This means a larger influx of people coming to Gozo and possibly increasing investments in IT, health, research and innovation,” she concluded.

Chris Said responded by saying that Gozo’s accessibility is the lifeline of Gozo since “Gozitans depend exclusively on the accessibility of Gozo through Malta.”

Said said the tunnel project motion was a positive thing, an effort to finally reach consensus between the two major parties so the permanent link between Malta and Gozo can be made a reality.

“This is not a process of just one legislature but a process that already ran through three legislatures and will keep coming up in future legislatures,” Said noted, adding this was why it was important to come to an agreement on a topic that proved so controversial. 

He argued that both the PN and the PL had the political commitment to complete this project, referring to a 2011 study by Mott MacDonald and commissioned by Transport Malta that concluded that a tunnel would be far more feasible than a bridge between the two islands.

He appealed to the government to not shy away from publishing all reports and assessments related to the project and to carry on with a wide consultation.

“There is no question that the project is warranted and required. A Gozitan person who lives in Gozo but works in Malta suffers 16 hours more travelling time than the average Maltese. It is as if they are working on the weekend too. The government should clarify and explain to the people why this project is needed despite the challenges,” the PN MP said.

He then submitted a number of amendments to the motion, namely to ensure that all publications in terms of the project should be made available to the public and to mitigate the current connectivity problems between the island until the project is completed.

PN MP Frederick Azzopardi was the most critical of how the government had handled the project. He criticised the government for not encouraging public participation on the Malta-Gozo tunnel.

"In April of 2016, Joseph Muscat assured us that the environmental aspect would be given due attention with respect to the tunnel," he said. "But the government closed any form of dicussion, telling 13 NGOs that the Gozo tunnel will take place, even though no studies had been published."

He added that even labour MEP Alfred Sant had envinced his doubts about the project and that the government had shown complete and utter disrespect to the environmental authorities by closing all discussions on the tunnel irrespective of anything damning to be said in the Environmental Impact Assessment.

"An agreement between the two major parties should never take precedence over scientific studies," Azzopardi concluded.

Parliamentary Secretary for EU funds Aaron Farrugia assured the Nationalist Party that all studies would be published in due time.

"Irrespective of what happens today," he said, "both sides of the house need to ascertain that the development around the area is sustainable and that Gozo doesn't become a block of concrete."

He added that Gozo was a rural gem and it was its rural and rustic qualities that made it so popular with tourists and Maltese citizens alike.

"I wouldn't say that this is a national project. The Gozo tunnel is a European project because it ultimately connects the island to the rest of Europe," he said.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that despite some scepticism among some PN MPs, the agreement between the two major parties was obvious.

"This project is epochal, the largest infrastructural project in the history of this country, but this is not just an instance of an infrastructural project but an instance of political credibility since the project was agreed upon in each party's electoral manifesto," Muscat said.

On the issue of land reclamation, Muscat argued that the country had already experimented in this area: in Msida and the Freeport among other areas. He ascertained that the Environment and Resources Authority is currently carring out feasibility studies on land reclamation and that he had no doubt this would be discussed in parliament eventually.

With regards to a fast-ferry service, Muscat said that a tender had been issued and Gozo Channel’s controversial choice of an ‘unknown’ company to serve as its partner in a fast-ferry service between Malta and Gozo has now been referred to the court. For this reason, the government was waiting for a ruling.

Opposition Leader Adrian Delia said that he hoped that the social fabric of an entire community doesn’t get eroded for the sake of development.

“When you have a project of this size, its fundamental that all publications related to the project are made available to whoever is in charge of safeguarding the interest of the people” Delia said, adding that these publications should be made available before decisions are taken.

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg confirmed that the studies will be published in the coming days.

He took to Twitter to say that the approved parliamentary motion would unleash the full potential of Gozo whilst providing guaranteed accessibility endorsed unanimously by the two major parties in parliament.

The government’s move to submit the Gozo tunnel project as a parliamentary motion could have been interpreted as the government’s initiative to rope in the Opposition to back the contentious development.

The motion referred to the electoral manifestos of the two major parties in Parliament, which promised a permanent link between Malta and Gozo. It also noted that plans for the project had started in the 2008 legislature by the then Nationalist administration.

The motion recognised the challenges the project is expected to create in terms of waste generated by the digging and the need to preserve Gozo’s natural beauty and its cultural identity.

Studies on the proposed tunnel that will have entrances at Nadur in Gozo and l-Imbordin in Malta said the project is expected to generate one million cubic metres of waste.

The Transport Ministry has also hinted that it would be impossible to integrate the tunnel into a national underground system.

A MaltaToday survey last year found widespread support in Malta and Gozo for the tunnel project despite several environmental groups’ concerns over its impact on rural environment.