Friday 23 August 2019

Dissecting six pro-Gozo tunnel arguments

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

Franco Mercieca is the head of the Malta-Gozo tunnel steering committee and his latest interview with Vanessa McDonald for Times Talk can be summed up with one sentence: it’s happening baby, and there is nothing any of you can do to stop it.

But those of us who think this is just one huge folly, and a White Elephant of elephantine proportions will not just roll over and play dead. Team Tunnel keeps trying to convince the sceptics that the project is a dire need, especially for Gozitans, and yet when I listened to his arguments, I was even less impressed than I was before.

Argument One: The mysterious market research which claims 82% of Maltese and 85% of Gozitans want the tunnel.

Please publish this survey and let us see if this is really true and not just figures plucked out of thin air. The public deserves to know how the market research was conducted and the sample and methodology used. Gozo is made up of different demographics; apart from Gozitans themselves, there are ex-pats who have bought property and invested their earnings to retire in tranquillity as well as Maltese who have bought a second vacation home, again purely because it is (to date) still quite peaceful. They, too, contribute to the Gozitan economy. People I have spoken to say that it is not true that such a large majority of Gozitans want the tunnel, but again this is pure conjecture because we really do not know.

Argument Two: “I don’t know why there is still all this discussion against it, because we are at the implementation stage, we are actually doing it.”

I am pretty sure he is trying to tell us to shut up because it’s a done deal. Well, too bad, we won’t. After all, he hasn’t exactly taken heed of the people who are going to be negatively impacted the most (at both ends of the tunnel entrance), has he? Dr Mercieca neatly sidestepped any considerations about the environmental impact to marine life and the land, nor does he seem bothered about warnings which have been voiced by geologists.

Argument Three: At the moment, Gozitans don’t have the same opportunities in education, work or quality of health care.

There are hundreds of Gozitan graduates who have made names for themselves, and who have carved out excellent careers. As for quality health care, excuse me, isn’t that why Steward Health care took over the hospital? To say that the extra travelling time has hindered Gozitans from achieving what they want is probably the biggest fallacy because the opposite is true. They tend to be more determined, more independent and more hard-working precisely because of the fact that they have to cross over on a ferry each day or else come to live in Malta as students.

Argument Four: An extra three hours of travelling time daily means they are wasting time which could be used for other things such as reading.

You can read on the ferry. You cannot read while you are driving a car through the tunnel. A tunnel will simply add to the existing traffic while shifting the queues of traffic jams to where the entrance and exits will be.

Argument Five: He has heard “through the grapevine” that a fourth Gozo ferry will not be bought but leased, and in his opinion, the number of ferries will be downsized because it is clear that “people want a permanent link”. He added that these smaller ferries will be more intended for passengers than for cars because the need “will be less”.

Did loud alarm bells ring as loudly for you as for me on hearing this? Is this a way to force people to use the tunnel because smaller ferries won’t be able to take as many passengers and cars?

Argument Six: When Vanessa McDonald rightly pointed out that it will cost hundreds of millions to build the tunnel and asked where the money is coming from, the answer we got is that a private contractor will step in and invest to build the tunnel and be given a concession according to the cost of the project and the toll fees to cross the tunnel. Dr Mercieca assured her that the investor would be able to recoup this tremendous investment. He added that the taxpayer was not paying for any of this (unlike any investment in new ferries), the concession would be given only for a certain period of time and then the ownership of the tunnel would revert back to the Government.

I think the look of sheer doubt on Vanessa’s face was all of us. It is not as if we have not had experience of how contracts to private investors have been doled out over the last five years, which later turn out to be not quite what they seem.

This state of affairs reminds me of Brexiters who are now realizing that they voted without knowing all the facts (and after being lied to), but are being told to “jump off the cliff” anyway. I’m afraid we are heading towards a situation where once the Gozo tunnel is built at great expense and after ruining pristine agricultural land and Gozo’s uniqueness forever, we will look back and rue the day that this whole silly idea was ever proposed.

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