Reflections on Transport Policy

published on Sunday August 24, 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo



It is not often that different issues, which could possibly lead to the formulation of one coherent policy, crop up simultaneously. Three such issues all dealing with transport policy are currently (and separately) under discussion. If adequately coordinated it could be possible to formulate one coherent transport policy that facilitates our mobility and simultaneously leads to less congested roads and a cleaner air.

The reduction of sulphur and lead in the fuels we used way back in the 1980s and the recent introduction of bio-diesel on the market were significant steps forward which unfortunately were not followed up with the formulation of a clear and coherent transport policy. Likewise the subsidies dished out by the State for the modernisation of the public transport fleet were limited to issues of accessibility (low floor).

Environmental indicators published recently by Mepa clearly show the main traffic arteries as the most densely polluted ones. The pollution levels in St Anne Street, Floriana sticks out, as do other residential areas, which have to put up with through traffic. Notably Msida, Fgura and Hamrun.

The reform of car registration taxation was triggered by EU infringement procedures as well as ECJ decisions relative to other European States. Car registration taxes, which in Malta are substantial, have, to date, not been a sufficient deterrent to placing 292,000 cars on Malta’s roads.

The issue of transport reform has been neglected for decades that it has now developed into a time bomb. The inefficient public transport is indirectly the cause of a large number of cars on the road and consequently is contributing to the further deterioration of the air we breathe.

These three issues are being dealt with separately, with Mepa analysing the effects, the Ministry of Finance seeking to retain taxation at its present levels and the Ministry for Transport facing the music.

Instead of being separate issues, the government should have taken this once in a lifetime opportunity of formulating a coherent transport policy with the Minister for the Environment taking the lead. This is the policy advocated by the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which though approved by Cabinet after extensive consultation with stakeholders over a long time frame, seems to have been placed in hibernation.

The Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands in fact considers it necessary to promote a sustainable transport system and calls for the formulation of an “integrated transport strategy”. Transport policy, the strategy says, has an important role in nurturing sustainable communities.

As indicated in the document issued by the Ministry of Transport some weeks ago, it is envisaged to overhaul public transport such that an integrated network is created making more of Malta accessible. When this is achieved one of the contributors to social exclusion would have been tackled.

The reform of public transport is crucial in the implementation of a transport policy because if reasonable accessibility were guaranteed, as it should be, through an efficient and punctual public transport, more custom would be attracted thereby reducing the number of cars on our roads. In such circumstances most of us would consider seriously making use of public transport more often.

In the short term this would have the effect of reducing the number of cars temporarily our roads. In the long term it could reduce the purchase of cars.

The most important effect on our families would be substantial improvements in the quality of the air we breathe coupled with fewer expenses.

In these circumstances car registration tax assumes the function of an environmental tax. In fact, the few details known so far indicate that emissions and car size would be the criteria on the basis of which the quantum of car registration tax payable would be determined. The splitting of the tax due into two, part due on registration and the rest payable throughout the car’s lifetime is also reasonable and an effective manner in which to apply the polluter pays principle. This would assist in the determination of impacts that vary throughout the lifetime of a car. Varying emissions could be determined through the VRT test, which should henceforth be used as a tool for determining the environmental impacts of cars currently on the road.

This is a long-term view of transport. It will undoubtedly not be to everybody’s liking. Car dealers, panel beaters, car mechanics would not be amused if fewer cars were our roads as it would reduce their work. Fewer cars on the road would also reduce government’s income because fewer taxes would be collected. But on the plus side it would be a bonus to our health.

Large communities living in those areas, which, year in year out are identified as having low air quality, would heave a sigh of relief. Those who over the years have developed respiratory diseases, most notably asthma, would welcome any improvements as these would be a boost to their quality of life.