[WATCH] Government and Opposition 'must treat traffic like financial services'

Speaking on Xtra tonight, Marthese Portelli insisted that both sides of the house needed to work together and take difficult decisions on traffic

Ian Borg (left) with Marthese Portelli during tonight's episode of Xtra
Ian Borg (left) with Marthese Portelli during tonight's episode of Xtra

A bipartisan approach and a willingness to take unpopular decisions are essential ingredients necessary for the country to properly address the growing problem of traffic congestion, according to Marthese Portelli, the opposition's spokesperson on traffic and infastructure.

Portelli was a guest on current affairs programme Xtra, together with transport minister Ian Borg, where she stressed that she was not in favour of a populist politics, and that she would be willing to support the government, if it chose to implement unpopular policy, which could ultimately produce results.

“To solve it, we must take decisions, difficult decisions,” said Portelli. “As the opposition’s spokesperson for this sector, I would like to see us treat it like we have the financial services sector in the past.”

Turning to Borg, Balzan pointed out that the government seemed to be obsessed with the country’s infrastructure, while ignoring the fact that the number of cars on the road was continuing to increase at a fast rate. 

“What is the alternative?” asked the minister in response. He stressed that if a limit were to be placed on the number of registered vehicles, one needed to ensure that those who could not use their car had access to an alternate mode of transport.

“On the other hand, you could work on alternatives that are good enough to cause people to no longer need their private cars.”

Borg said the country had lost faith in its public transport system when the old bus service was modernised in 2011, adding that the service had then started to improve, with further reforms having also been introduced by the last Labour administration. 

The minister stressed that even though there were clear improvements to the service, new problems had continued to arise.

 “Capacity is one of them,” said Borg. “I think we are saturation point, meaning we’re seeing a lot of complaints about the bus being full by the time it gets to certain localities.”

He said that despite this showing that the service was being used, it meant nothing to those who could not catch a bus.

“There were also issues wit the operator which we did not take lightly, were some services being skipped,” he said.

This was unacceptable, said Borg, who said that Transport Malta had communicated this to the company operating Malta’s busses.

Difficult decisions

Asked to elaborate on what difficult decisions needed to be taken Portelli said there were a number of changes that could be implemented, which both sides of the house agreed with, while there were others that might require more discussion.

“One can mention timed parking in certain areas,” said Portelli. “Its true, it will create an inconvenience to those who are used to parking there from the morning till the evening, but the truth is that the system will more or less have been gotten used to after a short while.”

Similarly, Borg said there were certain practices that needed to change. He pointed to the fact that in some cases, one could find up to three bus stops or multiple traffic lights along a 50m stretch of road.

“You would get different groups of residents going to their local councils, or their parliamentary representative, asking for a pedestrian crossing to be placed right outside their block so that they do not need to walk a few metres,” said Borg.

He added that both Malta’s bus service operator and Transport Malta were actively undergoing an exercise, aimed at determining how the number of bus stops and traffic lights could be harmonized and reduced.

The political will to make changes was also discussed, with Balzan pointing out that while traffic infuriated most people on the road, it was not a subject likely to cause people to switch from one party to the other.

Turning to Portelli, Balzan asked what aspects of the government’s handling of transport she felt had not been up to standard.

“On traffic a lot is needed,” she said. “Obviously, it can’t happen overnight and I personally expected more measures and incentives in the budget.”

Portelli added however that she understood that the ministry had moved from one minister to another weeks before the budget.

Better coordination on the roads

Borg said efforts were also underway to better use technological advances to manage traffic on Malta’s roads. He some 30 locations around the island were now being monitored using some 27 CCTV cameras.

This, he said, allowed Transport Malta officials on the ground to better understand how traffic was flowing, allowing them to direct cars more efficiently.   

The minister said that the Police, local wardens and Transport Malta had pooled their resources together and would continue to do so in the future when it came to traffic management.

Portelli said it was positive to see the three agencies working together, but said it made more sense for there to be a more permanent agency that was solely dedicated to the management of traffic.

“For example, this unit could make good use of system of CCTV cameras, which could also eventually be combined with the intelligent lighting system,” suggested Portelli.

Checks and balances in procurement

Before last June’s general election the government pledged to invest €700 million in redoing all of Malta’s roads. Balzan asked Borg how he would be going about enacting this pledge, particularly on what checks and balances would be put in place to ensure that procurement methods are transparent.

Borg replied that the government would be taking photos of every road in Malta using “advanced methods” which would indicate exactly what state the road in question was in, and what work needed to be done.

Turning to how contractors would be chosen, Borg said the problem he was envisaging is that of a lack of capacity to carry out the necessary work on the part of local contractors.

“Tenders will be international, so will also have foreign companies prepared to come and do the work,” Borg said.  

He stressed however that the government could not longer issue individual € 50,000 tenders for every road. “We need to group them, especially when you have six or seven roads in the same area.”  

Portelli agreed that tenders needed to be group for the project to be feasible, but also stressed the importance of having a robust procurement system.

“There are also framework agreements, where the government can issue one tender, but in that tender it can choose more than one contractor,” said Portelli, adding that in this way, any contractor that was of an acceptable standard could “participate and do this type of work”.