Von Victor Paul Borg
A tunnel to Gozo is at present ineligible for funding under the EU’s TEN-T network, MEP Michael Cramer (European Green Party) told The Sunday Times of Malta yesterday.
This funding was something that, once the network is revised, was mentioned as a possibility by Transport Minister Ian Borg two weeks ago.
On the other hand, EU rules allow the government to subsidise fast ferry connections between the islands, Mr Cramer said.
The MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism, was in Gozo to take part in a debate about transport between the islands. Several candidates for next month’s European elections took part. Mr Cramer’s appearance was arranged by independent candidate Arnold Cassola.
“You have a big problem with traffic jams, and a tunnel will attract more cars, so the time that would be gained in the tunnel would be lost in exacerbated traffic jams,” Mr Cramer said.
“The plan is for a one-lane tunnel that feeds into wider roads, and the tunnel itself could become a bottleneck in peak times. This means that a tunnel is not likely to improve the time it takes to get to your destination.”
The German MEP says that the Committee on Transport and Tourism is focused on three principles: “to avoid, to shift and to improve” transport networks to steer Europe away from private car use. This because the “growth of 25 per cent of CO2 emissions in transport since 1990 is nullifying CO2 savings in other sectors.”
He elaborates: “We are decisive on co-financing: 80 per cent of co-financing is going into rail and inland waterway projects. The European Parliament has decided that at least 40 per cent of EU money on transport has to go into rail.”
He mentions trams as the overall solution for Malta, something that the EU could more readily co-finance.
And he dismissed talk by Dr Borg that the tunnel could be financed by the TEN-T network funding in the future.
Mr Cramer talks of electric bikes as ideal for short trips in Malta, citing research showing that most cars trips are less than 6km. As for transport to Gozo, Malta could learn from Denmark’s zero-emission ferries that are serving transport needs superbly.
“Malta may make the same mistake as the Channel Tunnel,” he says. “It was devised to be financed by shareholders but costs of construction almost doubled. Even after plans were altered for a rail tunnel during the construction itself – initially it was supposed to be a road and rail tunnel – the private shareholders ended up losing 60 per cent of their investment. By the time the tunnel was completed, the company had gone bankrupt.”
Analysis: Faith over science?
Last Wednesday’s motion in Parliament in favour of a tunnel to Gozo was supported by the PL and PN, while the two PD MPs deliberately and symbolically “boycotted the sham discussion”.
However, with studies to back up the project yet to be published, the vote can be seen as merely an act of political faith.
The Prime Minister talked of the tunnel options – whether dug deep underground or immersed on the seabed – as something that has yet to be decided. This runs contrary to previous assertions of the tunnel being at the “implementation stage”.
All talk about the tunnel shows that the project is still at the conceptualisation stage and that its funding and operation remain fluid.
In last year’s project description statement issued by Transport Malta, the tunnel was described as underground – bored either above or below the layer of blue clay. This remained an open question in the report.
The tunnel would be financed and constructed by a private entity that would then operate it for 20 years. This has led to questions about financial feasibility: whether it would be possible to rake in a return on investment and make a profit within 20 years.
This is something that is in turn dependent on evolving sea transport connections. The need for a tunnel could wane once the long-promised fast ferry to Valletta becomes operational and other sea-transport connections are expanded or forged. These might include a slow ferry to Valletta, a service that was abruptly halted in 2015 to make way for a yacht marina and has yet to be resumed, as was hinted at the time.
Questions have also been raised about the geologic feasibility of the tunnel. Scepticism by outspoken geologist Peter Gatt led to Infrastructure Malta responding late last year that detailed geological studies were being conducted. It is not known whether these studies have been completed.
Last week Transport Minister Ian Borg promised to publish all studies but it is unclear whether they will include any detailed geological studies.
Talk by Dr Borg two weeks ago that the tunnel may be eligible for EU funding as part of an expanded TEN-T network – revision of the network is expected in the early 2020s – shows that uncertainty remains about whether the project shall be delivered by a private entity or the government itself.
For a private entity, financial feasibility remains the proverbial elephant in the room: making a return on investment and running a profit from the daily pool of 9,000 vehicles projected to make the crossing by 2030 could make fares prohibitively high and encourage drivers to use the ferries instead.
And for the government, if it has to fund the tunnel, putting its bets on TEN-T funding may prove to be ephemeral.
All this casts serious doubt on the target date of 2024 for completion mentioned by Dr Borg last year.