To Gozo with love

January 8, 2019

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The proposed Gozo tunnel has resurfaced once again. No surprise. The MEP elections are round the corner. It is normal that white elephants are driven in the political arena during such times.

Their main aim is to try to get on board the blindfolded followers who can be convinced that a circle is square, especially if this comes from the political leaders, no matter from which side.

This time a new step in this regard has been made. An international call for tenders for the construction of the 10 km underwater tunnel, plus additional inland excavation – approximately an additional 5 km – was announced.

The information was revealed by the Minister for Transport, who regrettably, is already associated with the destruction of any tree which dares stand in the way of spending EU millions to widen roads – the latest to bite the dust are national trees at Buqana.

Suggested socially and environmentally friendly alternative connections between the two islands.

Does the public have a right to know what were the findings of the social, environmental and financial impacts of this tunnel? After all, our country belongs to all of us and not just to politicians and entrepreneurs.

Has consideration been given to the negative impacts of such works on the only remaining unadulterated water catchment area at l-Imbordin?  How will this affect the water table? And how will this affect the livelihood of  those involved in agriculture in the area?

What about the Gozitan farmers on the other side of the tunnel exit? Is this of importance? Who will benefit most from the tunnel, the people or the capitalists? Have such studies been undertaken despite the official tender calls? Has the general public a right to know of these negative impacts or are these confidential too? Would any professional firm tender for such works without such important scientific studies?

How much deeper under the 35 m of sea-depth will the tunnel be excavated? What kind of geological strata grace such depths? What is the position of the ERA?

Who will be giving the assurance and take responsibility for any loss of human life and limb in meddling with such dangerous large and deep sea bottom faults the area is full of, as has been pointed out by geologist Peter Gatt?

Will the responsible minister and the Planning Authority, which incidentally is in his portfolio, be shouldering all responsibility for loss of human life and ecological and social destruction and disasters, both on the site in question and also, directly or indirectly, in the affected areas? Somebody has to.

The answer to these and other questions raised by sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino ‘What purpose should tunnel serve?’ (January 4) have never been addressed, much more answered.

In the background of this political circus, one can hear the artificial, shameless pleadings that this is all in the interest of the general public, especially Gozitans, who deserve to have better crossing facilities between the two islands. No doubt about it.

Everybody agrees that Gozitans and Maltese deserve better crossing facilities. But not with such destructive decisions bereft of any technical and scientific studies, solely based on local arbitrary political acumen and agendas.

There is an ever-increasing momentum among the public, not least Gozitans, that the best environmental, social and financially friendly approach is the fast ferry service between the two islands. These can run not just from Mġarr to Ċirkewwa, but also to St Paul’s Bay or Qawra, to Sliema and also to Valletta.

And if found that there is the appropriate economically feasible demand, also to the Birżebbuġa and Marsaxlokk.

This would help commuters from getting caught in traffic jams along the way in St Paul’s Bay, Mosta, Birkirkara, Msida, Ħamrun, Floriana or everywhere along their journey across the island, something the tunnel can never achieve. The sea routes are already available at no cost at all. And these do not need any widening.

Who will benefit most from the tunnel, the people or the capitalists?

If the Ministry of Transport is open to suggestions, unless they believe that the people out there can all be convinced that a circle is square, they can plan a holistically better managed public transport system on both islands, in connection with the stops of these fast ferries service. The present service between the two islands should also form part of this national transport management plan.

Such holistic public transport management can include, among others, a shuttle service from the Valletta ferry stop to the Valletta bus terminus to cut down on private transport and help commuters reach their destination easier.

Another shuttle service can take commuters to the Blata l-Bajda park-and-ride to reach a parked car which, if one wishes, can be left there. Such facilities can also be available at every fast-ferry stop.

This would be far less expensive and more socially and environmentally friendly than the proposed tunnel, in all aspects. It would also help commuters to cut down on expenses, both in the consumption of petrol, and also in the wear and tear of their cars. It would also help to further reduce pollution from the urban and rural environment, with all its negative impacts on the people’s physical and psychological health.

Furthermore this would also help to lessen the stress in crossing from one island to the other, especially through the 15 km+ tunnel, where all the psychological impact studies seem to have been completely ignored. Unless of course these negative social impacts are also officially regarded as further contributing to the economy.

It would also be interesting to know the toll commuters will have to pay to use the tunnel. It seems that this is not in the public interest either, possibly because it might scare some of the ‘faithful’ who may have concluded that driving through the tunnel would be free, like driving through any other road.

From past experience, I am convinced that the minister responsible for transport has a positive environmental awareness and would positively study any alternative suggestions. However, I have my doubts how much power he has to decide himself because of directions from upstairs.

From the way the social and environmental fabric of these islands is being officially exploited and destroyed, without any scientific studies or regard for their negative impacts, it is very difficult not to conclude that their destruction is part of an official political agenda supported by the square-circled mentality, and endorsed by some academics paid to decide politically and not to think professionally.

The Minister for Transport, nonetheless, is both personally and collectively responsible for the future sanity and well-being of the people of these islands and their environment with regards to the tunnel and transport management.

The crossing to Gozo and back can be made easier for the benefit of the people of these islands, with love and not with co-ordinated politically motivated destruction.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

other related articles:

Tunnelling the cross

Efficient link to Gozo

 

 

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Tunnelling the cross

May 24, 2016

times of malta

Tuesday, 24th May, 2016

Tunnelling the cross

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The proposed tunnel crossing under the 10km Gozo Channel seems to have surfaced again. Those in favour of this tunnel are putting forward every thinkable reason to justify such a tunnel. Such justifications include the long waiting queues on both sides of the channel, the Gozo aging population, the lack of job oppportuity in Gozo, and also that residents do not want to rely on touristic income to live in Gozo.

2016.05.24 - tunnelling the cross

Photo: viewingmalta.com from The Times

One Gozitan businessman also said that the tunnel would be just another road as the one leading from Marsascala to Valletta. Furthermore, it was also said that the present ferries will be obsolete within 15 years time.

A feasibility study concluded in favour of the tunnel. Externalites, that is the hidden costs that society and the environmenet will have to pay, were not even mentioned, despite the fact that it was concluded that profits in millions would be achieved. Geological studies have not even been initiated. It seems that these are not important as long as it has been concluded that there would be a financial profit.

The geologist Dr Peter Gatt, has pointed out that the area is full of large and deep faults. He also added that it is not only difficult to tunnel through these unstudied faults, but this can also be dangerous to human life.

The maximum depth of water in the channel is estimated to be 30 metres. Excavation depth in the rock bottom, without the availability of geological studies, is estimated to be 70 metres, that is 100 metres below sea level. The openings of this undeground tunnel can lead to the Nadur lowlands on Gozo and Għadira on the mainland.

A number of questions not only have not been answered, but have not even been asked, such as:

How will the tunnel affect both islands from a social and environmental point of view?

Have studies, if any, shown the impact of excavations at the two ends of the tunnel, on the hydrology and agriculture of the areas?

How will the estimated meagre one to two million cubic metres of excavated material be disposed of, and what will be its social and ecological impacts?

How will the tunnel contribute to curb the Gozitan ageing population? Will it instead contribute to further increase it?

Have any studies been done to see if the tunnel will further attract Gozitan youths to spend the weekend on the mainland for entertaining purposes and thus contributing to further add to the exodus from Gozo?

How will the tunnel affect internal tourism? I remember that in the recent past, when there was the ferry service available after the operettas held in Gozo, the commercial entities complained because this affected the bed nights in Gozo because theater visitors could easily return home after the performance. The tunnel would make this possible 356 days a year.

How would the tunnel impact the number of bed nights taken by foreign tourists in Gozo?

A fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view

Initial construction costs of the tunnel are estimated at €300 million, which can easily double, depending on the geological studies. What would be the additional cost with respect to maintenance, and other requisites, for the safety of commuters: for example extraction and injection of fresh air through the tunnel? And how would these increase the toll that commuters will have to pay to cross through the tunnel?

These financial, social and environmental expenses, with the added externalities, are needed for crossing just a 10km stretch of water, not taking into consideration other construction problems. One has also to keep in mind any arising problems during its running, such as traffic accidents or other unforeseen circumstances.

The traffic problems on both sides of the tunnel will not only remain the same as they are today, but there is the probability that these will be further accentuated. Unless of course additional millions are pumped in with further social and environmental hidden costs.

Without doubt, the present facilities to cross the channel are anything but customer friendly. BUT, the tunnel is not the sustainable solution.

The present ferry service contributes to a substantial part of the problem.

It has no competition at all to render it more friendly and adjusted to commuters’ requests and demands. It is a monopolistic service.

Such is the monopolistic management that if there is somebody who believes that he is more important than all the commuters waiting at both quays, he can call back the ferry which has just departed to accommodate him!

The waiting commuters can wait a little longer, be they workers, students, tourists or just common citizens. And the expenses incurred to build such a sustainable tunnel are not the way to control such a monopolistic service.

The ferries in use today were launched in the early 2000. During that time the demand was not as heavy as it is today. Following intensive, successful advertisements to visit Gozo, the demand increased by leaps and bounds, reaching the million mark today. But the number of ferries remained as it was originally, resulting in occasional delays and long queues. If the service were run on competitive lines, without any doubt the problem would not be so acute.

It is quite a relief to hear that a fast ferry service is an alternative to the tunnel. This fast service, besides shortening the time of crossing, can also take commuters, car and all, from Mġarr not only to Ċirkewwa, but also to Valletta, Sliema and any other planned destination on the mainland. This can be enhanced by the availablility of a shuttle bus service from the quay to various bus terminuses.

Such a fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. Not only so, but it can be faster for commuters, it will avoid time in traffic bottlenecks, it will ease the stress of commuters, it will contribute to the decrease of vehicular emissions, it can also be cheaper and daily commuters can leave their cars on the quay close to home. The tunnel does not address these benefits.

Obviously such a fast ferry service cannot be afforded monopolistic protection, or the problems will still persist.

Speakers, both Gozitans, for the two main parties are leading the front in favour of the tunnel. Only Alternattiva Demokratika is against. One of the former said that all Gozitans are in favour of the tunnel: the vociferous ones that is, but I do not believe that the silent majority are.

The other politician, from the other side of the fence, said that this is a Gozitan project which will benefit Gozitans, and that both parties will include it in their electoral manifesto. Does this mean that those who are against such a tunnel should not vote for the parties who are in favour? A Gozitan friend of mine who is against the tunnel, after hearing such comments on the air, told me that both parties have lost his vote.

The present tunnel vision is more like walking blindfolded searching for a presumed lost black cat in a dark tunnel, to the background music of counting machines.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Further reading:

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/efficient-link-to-gozo/