Gozo tunnel: a return to sanity?

It is time for politicians to make an honest reflection on past promises and for giving Gozitans the impression that the tunnel is a done deal

Comments by Malta’s infrastruture minister Aaron Farrugia on Tuesday in which he appeared unwilling to commit to the completion of the as-yet-unstarted Malta-Gozo tunnel link, seem to contrast with the sense of urgency and certainty of politicians in the past.

Farrugia insisted that certain technical and financial feasibility aspects of the controversial Gozo tunnel still need to be evaluated. “This is a project like the Metro, one needs to carry out more studies and decide accordingly. One needs to evaluate feasibility from a technical and financial aspect.” This kind of restraint appears to lack the bullishness of the last administration, when Joseph Muscat said in May 2017 that studies on the Gozo tunnel project were at such an advanced staged that it could be in operation in seven years and that Gozo should not be left ‘hanging’.

That kind of optimism on the tunnel’s feasibility, much loathed by environmentalists, outlasted the Muscat administration when in January 2020, former transport minister Ian Borg insisted that the tunnel project was even financially viable without state subsidies. “On the basis of what was presented to me, even with the current volume of traffic the project is already viable,” he had said.

Then in 2022, the Labour Party manifesto pledged that “now that studies on the tunnel project have been completed” a pre-evaluation questionnaire is being evaluated to ensure that the project “moves to the next phase: implementation.”

Although the Malta-Gozo tunnel idea was a brainchild of the Gonzi administration, for the past years Labour has lambasted the Opposition for not being as enthusiastic as the government in its support for the tunnel project. It even went as far as forcing the hand of the Opposition by presenting a motion in favour of the tunnel in parliament, weaponising the House ahead of the formal planning process for the tunnel project.

Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri had ridiculed the PN’s position that a public consultation must be carried out on the project, with the consultation culminating in a referendum on the issue, describing it as “a major U-turn”  

So while Aaron Farrugia’s caution on the feasibility of this mega-project is welcome, it also exposes the irresponsibility of the political class for misleading the public and weaponising this issue for political gain. Many are the ministers in Robert Abela’s Cabinet who think this project, as well as the Metro, is fiscally imprudent. 

For ever since Lawrence Gonzi had resurrected the tunnel project, which had been first considered in a 1972 study by a Japanese agency, to restore his party’s fortunes in Gozo in 2011, both political parties have ended up stifling public debate by pandering to a legitimate – but not necessarily realistic – aspiration of the Gozitan electorate.  

While one understands the difficulties faced by Gozitans who have to travel to Malta on a daily basis to work or further their education, this does not magically make the project any more feasible and  sustainable. In reality we are still in the dark as we lack basic information on how the project will be financed and whether tolls paid by users will be enough to finance it. It also remains a mystery how private investors will recoup the massive capital costs involved to construct the tunnel and whether the government will be expected to fork out public money to make the project possible.

It is possible that growing deficits due to increased (and justified) public expenditure during COVID and to mitigate the impact of the war have had a sobering effect on the government’s tunnel dreams. Moreover one also has to consider that the government is already committed to spend €700 million in urban greening projects in the next legislature in a project entrusted to environment minister Miriam Dalli.

And Farrugia’s comparison between the metro and the Gozo tunnel is indeed apt: for the metro itself may offer returns to private investors in the shape of underground malls in the various train stations, yet the Gozo tunnel offers less opportunities of this kind.

And while Labour’s manifesto does not include a firm commitment for a metro by making it conditional on “technical studies” proving its feasibility, the commitment for the Gozo tunnel is clear. And this inevitably raises a political problem for the government – even if a return to sanity is welcome on this front.

Indeed, apart from the unresolved doubts on financial feasibility, past commitments for the tunnel were taken in absence of environmental impact studies. Even at a glance, the project is already expected to have a major impact on the tunnel entry points in Pwales and Nadur, apart from creating a massive amount of construction waste which would increase pressure for land reclamation projects.

It is time for politicians to make an honest reflection on past promises and for giving Gozitans the impression that the tunnel is a done deal.

Aaron Farrugia’s honest reflection comes a bit too late in the day to restore credibility in our political leaders but could at least save the country from driving itself against a wall. For the worse thing would be to proceed with the project irrespective of objective criteria.