Tunnel vision

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Gozo’s connectivity issues are considered as a problem when in reality they define Gozo and determine its distinct features. Unfortunately, in this respect both the government and the opposition have developed a tunnel vision, that is they tend to focus on just one view and ignore everything else.

The latest twist in the current debate is the declaration by the Finance Minister in his budget statement earlier this month that the feasibility study commissioned by Transport Malta, together with the Gozo Business Chamber has been concluded positively  and that the next step would be  the commissioning of a technical and geological study relative to the projected tunnel across the Gozo Channel.

Transport Malta, prodded by the Gozo Business Chamber, seems to be bent on putting the cart before the horse as it is inconceivable how a feasibility study could be concluded without first having identified all the geological issues and examined them in detail.  Knowing that the Gozo Channel contains a number of geological faults, including active ones, leads to the logical preliminary conclusion that geological studies of the area proposed to be tunnelled could have a substantial bearing on the technical parameters of the project. This would include the specific  route to be selected, the actual works to be carried out and the costings. The geological studies could also lead to a technical recommendation to select an alternative solution other than boring a tunnel below the seabed .

When the PN-led government placed the issue on the national agenda, former Minister Chris Said gave his guesstimate that the tunnel would cost in the region of €150 million. We have recently been informed that this guesstimate has increased substantially to between €250 and €300 million.

These guesstimates are on the low side, because when the geological issues have been examined the estimate could well shoot up to over €1 billion- this being around 4 times what has been taken into consideration in the so-called “feasibility study”.

These type of project very rarely follow estimated costs. The tunnel linking the Marsa and Delimara powers stations in Malta, for example, overshot its projected costs by around 100% due to the absence of adequate geological information. As a result, parts of the  tunnel caved in during works, necessitating substantial additional work, including redirecting parts of it. On the other hand,  expenditure on the Channel Tunnel linking Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles near Calais exceeded the projected estimates by around 80% notwithstanding the availability of detailed geological studies.

Last week, one of the Sunday newspapers referred to a survey carried out by the Gozo Tourism Association which indicates that 64% of tourism operators in Gozo are adamantly against the proposed tunnel because the direct result of this would be to render Gozo as an appendage of Malta. Gozo would be transformed into a one- day destination, just like most of the other tourism attractions spread over the Maltese islands.

Gozitan tourism operators have a very valid point, as the direct result of this tunnel vision is that Gozo would be transformed from an island into a remote village. Most hotels in Gozo as well as the flats and farmhouses available to let, could then require the identification of another use.

This matter has not yet been examined and yet it is fundamental to the decision-making process and should have been the first step in the whole exercise.

All this muddle and I have not yet commenced discussing the environmental impacts of the proposed tunnel!

The tunnel will generate large quantities of rock which require disposal. The precise amount would depend on the route to be followed (and consequently the length of the tunnel) as well as the selected design (the cross sectional area) and could be anything between one and two million cubic metres of fragmented rock.

In addition, the proposed point of entry of the tunnel at Iċ-Ċumnija on the outskirts of Mellieħa, would most probably be accessed through a new road network in the area immediately behind the Għadira Nature Reserve and bird sanctuary. This means that all the environmental issues which were discussed when the proposed TEN-T network was being debated will once more be of relevance.

There are many other ways through which Gozo’s connectivity issues can be addressed and there are certainly more cost effective ways than the proposed tunnel. The costs to be considered are not just financial: they include social and environmental costs, which should be considered on the drawing board and not as an afterthought.

This is the problem with the tunnel vision – you just have one view, excluding all the others.

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MEPA: from bad to worse

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Government acting through MEPA is playing to the interests of property developers and speculators. This was stated by a group of environmental NGOs who decided to act together in voicing their concern. The eNGOs are Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Birdlife Malta, Friends of the Earth Malta, Moviment Graffiti, Greenhouse Malta, Malta Organic Agricutural Movement, Nature Trust Malta and Ramblers’ Association.

There is nothing new in stating that government is in cahoots with property developers and speculatiors. The new element is that it is much more obvious that it ever was. MEPA in fact is functioning worse than it ever did in its 21 year history.

And we have seen nothing yet. It will get worse .

The recent approval of the redevelopment of the Mistra Village site is a case in point.  In addition to its being a blot on the landscape the approved project consisting of 774 residential units [yes its seven hundred and seventy four] as well as 1,800 square metres of retail area [including a supermarket] spread in 6 rectangual blocks of various heights up to and including 13 floors.  The traffic load on an area already bursting at the seams will be enormous.

In fact, Transport Malta  had initially objected to the project as it was considered that the situation would inevitably develop from bad to worse.

Transport Malta has however had second thoughts and withdrew its objections.  FAA is on record as commenting that “In dropping its objection, Transport Malta insults local residents by claiming that the traffic situation is already so bad that adding heavy construction vehicles and another 1,500 cars to the area will not make a difference.”

This signifies that Transport Malta will now go back to its archives and reconsider the development of the TEN-T road network in the area. All the options have already been discussed and all of them will create even more probelms.  One proposal signifies cutting through the Miżieb aquifer. Other proposals pose serious threats to Manikata, the agricultural community in L-Imbordin as well as being a threat to the Simar Nature Reserve.

This is what MEPA’s decisions are leading to.  It will get worse soon.

Having nine NGOs voicing their concern together on the above and more is a good step. Their protest in Valletta’s streets on the 30th November 2013 deserves everyone’s support.

I will be there.

TEN-T : The Għadira Nodes

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published Saturday 27 December 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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Two important points have to be borne in mind while searching for a solution to upgrade the Ten-T (Trans-European Transport Network) road link at Ghadira Bay, Mellieha.

Firstly, all identified solutions will have an environmental impact. Secondly, in order that the public discussion be fruitful all information must be freely available.

The stakeholders are not just NGOs and specific economic operators. The whole community is the stakeholder. Stakeholders require information not just from the perceived interested parties but more so from the public authorities that are vested with authority to defend the community’s interests.

A number of reports have been made public. Some have been quoted selectively. Others are still under wraps.

BCEOM (French engineering consultants), in its 2004 report entitled Feasibility And Environmental Impact Studies For Transport Infrastructure Projects In Malta – Final Feasibility Study Report and AIS Environmental Limited, in its 2005 report entitled Proposed Review Of Ghadira Road Options, identify the upgrading of the existing road along the beach as the preferred option.[vide also 1 and 2]

Since then a number of proposals have been publicised. These revolve around two possibilities: the retention of the existing road with modifications or the construction of an alternative road to the south of the Nature Reserve and the Danish Village.

Preliminary appraisal of environmental impacts has been drawn up and on its basis the authorities have issued opinions that have not yet been made public. These indicate the detailed studies that have yet to be carried out in order to arrive at a definite decision.

In particular, it is to be noted that the AIS report dated November 2005 states (pages 2 and 3) that BCEOM had rejected the tunnel design beyond the Danish Village, which would have reclassified the beach front route as a local road.

These proposals were rejected by BCEOM on the basis of “excessive and unpredictable costs”. In addition, the AIS report emphasises that “Mepa had rejected the tunnel options on environmental grounds because the area in question is classified as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC)”.

The AIS report further states that subsequent to the above-indicated Mepa rejection, ADT reassessed the situation and proposed three options, two focusing on the existing road and the third being a new road incorporating a tunnel and bridge through the garigue (an SAC) south of the Danish Village, which, like the SAC-protected Nature Reserve, has been officially approved by the EU and forms part of Natura 2000.

It is within this context that Mepa has requested a “holistic preliminary assessment of the impacts arising from the various options that ADT is now considering”. Mepa has requested a number of studies related to beach dynamics, ecology, agriculture, geology, geomorphology and hydrology, archaeology and others. These studies were requested way back in 2005 and none has to date seen the light of day, notwithstanding that everyone seems to be in a hurry! These studies, if properly carried out, are of fundamental importance in determining the manner in which the Ghadira Ten-T link is to proceed, if at all!

Various statements have been made in the past weeks. The most conspicuous were those related to the sandy beach. It is by now clear that these have originated (without scientific justification) from a consultant commissioned by one of the economic operators in Ghadira Bay and were intended to reinforce his proposal for a beach concession as a result of a possible re-routing of the Ghadira road.

Within this context it was highly unethical for the Ministry of Transport to invite the said consultant to sit alongside the ministry’s officials in a recent meeting with NGOs and the press. The ministry’s subsequent declaration that it would oppose proposals for beach concessions in the area can only be interpreted as an attempt to correct its ethical short-sightedness!

A further important statement was made last week by nature itself. The sea level temporarily rose to the road level, thereby reinforcing arguments already brought forward that the existing road during the winter months is doubling up as a coastal defence to the Nature Reserve, which, being sited on former salt pans is partly below sea-level.

At this point in the debate, matters are slightly less nebulous than they were in the beginning. The declaration by the Minister for the Environment that all the required studies will be carried out is welcome.

However, such a declaration risks being viewed as a cheap attempt at damage control unless an explanation is forthcoming as to why these studies have not yet been finalised notwithstanding that they were requested by Mepa way back in 2005!

It is clear that, until recently, some thought that these studies could be dispensed with only to realise at the 11th hour that the environmental lobby is vigilant and will keep insisting that the government, through its various agencies, should shoulder its responsibilities!