Is the Gozo tunnel a fait accompli?

This raises the question: is the Gozo tunnel already a fait accompli? Are these studies simply being conducted as a cosmetic exercise, without any real implication on the decision-making process?

The Prime Minister has announced that government will introduce free buses linking Gozo to the airport, Mater Dei Hospital and other strategic locations across the mainland.

This goes half-way towards addressing criticism that the tunnel would drastically increase private car traffic to Gozo: with the inevitable deterioration in air quality, congestion and pressures on the road network that this will bring about.

Muscat has meanwhile shot down proposals to integrate the tunnel into a national metro system: arguing that completing a metro system would take a quarter-century, and that we cannot drag our feet on upgrading the country’s infrastructure till then.

In so doing, however, Muscat does not address the possibility of immediately limiting traffic in the new tunnel only to public transport buses. One reason why this is not possible is that private investors would be unable to recover the capital costs of building the tunnel, if everyone went to Gozo by bus for free.

Yet there is probably more than meets the eye in Muscat’s proposal. The declaration comes amidst reports, in last week’s edition in MaltaToday, that costs for the tunnel have been revised upwards from €200 million to €300 million.

This exposes a basic contradiction in tunnel economics. While public policy dictates encouraging a nodal shift from private cars to public transport, prospective developers can only recover the capital expense through tolls paid by car users. Essentially, the more passengers cross to Gozo by car, the more financially viable the project becomes.

Presumably, the bus company will also be paying a toll to use the tunnel. And in light of Muscat’s announcement, it now appears that the government will take upon itself the social cost of providing free public transport across the tunnel. This risks making the tunnel even less financially viable than ever, raising the prospect that it will be dependent on taxpayer monies for its long-term survival. It also raises the prospect of hidden government subsidies meant to sustain the tunnel operation, disguised as public transport subsidies.

Another worrying aspect of the Prime Minister’s declaration is that it takes for granted that the tunnel will be approved to begin with; even if Environment Impact Studies and geological studies still have to be published. Moreover the terms of reference for this EIA specify that the study must also consider the zero option: i.e. not developing the tunnel at all.

It also calls for studies on “alternative solutions for inter-island transportation.” The ERA’s terms of reference make it clear that these “alternatives, including the zero option, should be considered in sufficient detail as a plausible scenario in the EIA, wherever relevant, and not discarded upfront without proper discussion of its implications.”

This raises the question: is the Gozo tunnel already a fait accompli? Are these studies simply being conducted as a cosmetic exercise, without any real implication on the decision-making process?

If so, it would be a gravely irresponsible state of affairs. These studies may well indicate that aspects of the current proposal – like passing a tunnel through Pwales and l-Imbordin – may have unacceptable environmental and cultural heritage impacts. In the most extreme scenarios, there could be irreversible impacts on the water table, and possibly even geological problems that make the tunnel impossible in practice (or, worse still, dangerous).

It is, in effect, to study these possibilities that the entire planning process exists in the first place. One cannot just override it at will: no matter how urgent the social (or political) need for any given project may be.

Otherwise, where would this leave entities like the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage, the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority: whose legal duty is to safeguard the Maltese environment and local heritage including cultural landscapes irrespective of any electoral mandate?

The government also seems committed to a project which will create a massive amount of construction waste: in turn, rendering land reclamation inevitable… once again, even if studies on this option are still being conducted. To be fair, a nationwide metro system may also create similar impacts. But at least, in this scenario the negatives will be offset by a major public gain. In the case of the Gozo tunnel, the government seems intent on unleashing a domino effect which would bind future decisions on land reclamation and transport.

Moreover, Muscat ignores the possibility of offering similar subsidies to a fast ferry service linking Gozo to the harbour area. The introduction of a fast ferry service was also part of the Labour Party’s 2013 electoral mandate. For some mysterious reason, however, Gozitans were never given the chance to experience such a service.

And yet, it could even be possible that the provision of an efficient fast ferry service would have addressed most present-day problems related to connectivity. One is tempted to suspect that such a service was never given a chance, for fear that it would take the wind out of the sails of any financial interests behind the Gozo tunnel and ancillary developments.

The prime minister would do well to remember that he was elected to represent very different interests: namely, those of the people of Malta and Gozo.