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Network News • 19-11-2020

A commuting nightmare to boot

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today – 19 November 2020

It is an undisputed fact that the island is facing serious mobility problems caused by more cars on the cluttered roads. Many point out that this is the result of new affluence. As the saying goes, motorists are the first to suffer the inconvenience of increased vehicular presence which is making commuting a daily nightmare.

This is no exaggeration. Just reflect on studies that indicate commuters waste at least 30 minutes a day blocked in traffic. Nobody can in reality dispute the fact that the nation’s productivity trajectory depends on having an efficient road infrastructure. Equally important is the fact that many of us do not walk as people walk in other countries, if only we provide more harbour ferries, these would relieve the congestion if people walked to them rather than driving and expecting to find a parking space nearby.

Much has been written about the frustration and inconvenience caused by our gridlocked system but the dangerous levels of pollution must receive equal attention because it is contributing to the early death of many of our citizens. The ministry in charge of infrastructure last year announced that studies are being carried out by Arup, a London-based engineering and consultancy firm, which has worked on some major global projects – including the Sydney Opera House, Silicon Valley headquarters of Apple, Etihad Stadium and the London Eye.

One may comment that a mass public transportation system was a feature of the 2017 election campaign, with both Labour and PN pledging to conduct studies on the introduction of trains on the island.

The good news is that within a short span of three years, all of the seven flyovers of the Marsa Junction Project (see picture) are now open to road users. The €70 million project is being heralded by the government as “facilitating direct, uninterrupted connections between the major routes converging at the busiest intersection of the Southbound road network”.

Time will tell if the new structure does eventually reduce travel time and the carbon footprint. In our hectic life, few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the reflection of acquired affluence by workers who are finding good jobs and have a higher propensity to spend on entertainment, food, mobile telephony.

Certainly, cheap bank loans also help drivers to buy another imported car. As can be expected, the Opposition disagrees. It laments that the perceived affluence is paper-thin and wealth distribution is not equitable. A PN spokesman conjures a vision of poverty traps hidden behind the lure of statistics.

They fear that improvements in the economic growth are not percolating down to the grassroots level, saying the working poor hypothesis has crept in. Government hits back by saying it increased the minimum wage by 25% over the past six years and is currently paying €40 million monthly to save the jobs which are furloughed till March next year.

It is a dichotomy that while the economy is crippled by the pandemic and obviously not firing on all cylinders (public debt up to 56% of GDP) yet there are still a number of observers (mainly from the medical profession) who prescribe another national lockdown is the only cure to stem galloping infections.

The prime minister disagrees, rebutting that the Covid 19 situation is under control. Perhaps the silver lining is that due to a 75% drop in tourist arrivals, we are enjoying cleaner air from reduced car emissions. Still, the congestion in traffic does not seem to go away. This dilemma has been the focus of both political parties who each extol their heartfelt wishes wanting to solve the problem.

It was no surprise, that a mass public transportation system was a feature of the last election campaign, with both Labour and PN pledging to conduct studies on how best to solve the issue. Since 2013, one can remember various sound bites from lobbyists proposing the construction of the monorail system. This involves adding both overground and underground lines running North-South and West-East, intersecting at key traffic junctions and feeding at its various stops into other aboveground public transport means.

Previous studies had estimated the cost of the 70km service line will reach €1.42 billion (equal to 7 years’ worth in cohesion funds). Not a small ticket for a tiny economy with a mere €12.4 billion annual GDP and a current €1220 million annual deficit. The government, while keeping its cards close to its chest, contends that studies indicate a metro system is only sustainable with a higher population otherwise the fare needs to be subsidized out of increased taxation.

In the monorail sphere, many systems are popular such as the Maglev model which uses an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel, and guide a vehicle over a guide-way. Another option is the hybrid system of buses and rail proposed by Bjorn Bonello, a planning consultant. Whichever, model is chosen, one has to make certain that stations are located close to residential areas otherwise no one will use them.

The million-dollar question is who will foot the bill? Perhaps the answer is in the air when one contemplates the financial assistance that China is reputed to offer to friendly countries. This package is part of its policy to help countries that sign up for the initiative namely the “One Belt and One Road (OBOR).

Historically, one recalls how over the past centuries trade flourished code-named the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked China to Central Asia and the Arab world. Billions of dollars have been invested by China with an economy currently fully recovered from Covid 19.

This policy was launched in 2013 assisting over 60 countries, in a range of infrastructure projects including railways, bridges, roads and ports. The Economist reported how recently Italy’s government launched a “Task Force China” to develop a national strategy to boost economic and trade relations with China and guarantee itself a “position of leadership in Europe”.

This initiative is expected to increase exports from Italy to Asia and attract much needed inward investment in a country plagued by the high national debt. Malta may also benefit if it boldly embarks on this ambitious roadmap to attract China investment in a country-wide mass transit infrastructure.

Fortune favours the bold so can we strike while the iron is hot?

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today – 19 November 2020
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