Wednesday 13 November 2019

Expansion joints: After all the jokes, I hope the joke’s not on us

This column first appeared in Malta Today

My newsfeed this week was replete with jokes and memes about the infamous ‘expansion joints’. For those who have no idea what I’m on about, I am sure you saw the photo of one of the flyovers and what looked like worrying slipshod, makeshift workmanship. 

But no, we were firmly assured by Transport Minister Ian Borg that the photo, which had gone viral, showing a ‘crack’ on the underside of the flyover, was due to “missing expansion joints that are expected to be installed in the coming weeks”.

According to the report in The Times, “Marc Bonnello, who heads the University of Malta’s Civil Structural Engineering department, told Times of Malta that expansion joints are a common feature in structures like the flyover, as they “allow movement”. While commuters were not in any danger if they used the flyover while it did not have expansion joints installed, cars which drove over the gaps could technically sustain damage, he said.” 

Well, after that it was just a field day with everyone making jokes about expansion joints, managing to insert them into every topic possible.  It was funny – for a while. But underneath the laughter I could almost sense a tinge of hysteria; you know, the kind of out-of-control laughter which grips you in inappropriate situations. Such as at a funeral or following a horrific tragedy…or the terrifying possibility that the flyover might collapse.

This was hot on the heels of a previous photo showing a gaping hole –  which the Minister also downplayed as  “nothing but a narrow part of temporary asphalt” that was used until “expansion joints are installed”.

Ah, those elusive expansion joints again. The ensuing FB discussion then centred on that great philosophical question: when is a pothole not actually a pothole? 

But, of course, all this is no laughing matter. It is imperative for the authorities to not take this lightly and to set the public’s mind at rest that these much-publicised, very expensive flyovers, which are being inaugurated with so much fanfare (and so much unnecessary spending) are being built to stringent safety regulations.  

Ian Borg does not do himself any favours by saying childish things like, “Some people are just not happy with this government’s success.” It is also not becoming for a Government minister to squabble with a member of the Opposition on Facebook using images of Ronaldo to make some silly point and describing the flyover photo as ‘fake news’.  

Please do us all a favour and just grow up. Shoulder responsibility and be accountable for the complete safety of these flyovers which you are constantly gloating about, while spending taxpayers’ money on continuous adverts, billboards and self-promotion.  Yes, Ian, we can tell they are being built, those steel monsters towering over our heads are pretty hard to miss. But don’t insult people’s intelligence by dismissing their fears about possible dangers with a condescending wave of your hand.  If, God forbid, something does go wrong, it does not bear thinking about. 

I suggest that rather than frittering away any more money on inaugurating bits and pieces of the flyovers, the Government should spend the funds to make sure these structures are as safe as possible.  There is no use in working in haste and at breakneck speed at the expense of safety, just to stroke the Minister’s ego. We expect, and deserve no less, for if anyone should get injured or killed, all the ridiculous, pointless online bickering will not have saved them.

The public has a right to know that this huge project is being done properly and not being rushed through in order to meet some deadline so that Ian Borg can brag that he #GetsThingsDone.  This is no time for preening and self-glorification, not when thousands of cars are already using this particular flyover.  I also don’t want to read the opinions of self-styled experts on social media but for proper reassurance in the form of an official statement from qualified people that the whole thing is safe.  Although on Malta Today, the engineer responsible for the flyover, David Grima, reiterated that it is perfectly safe, somehow this message has not filtered through.  People are definitely not convinced, and one of the reasons for this is because this Government has been economical with the truth on so many issues that it has become difficult to trust it on anything. 

We have now got to a point that even if an official statement is issued, more than half the country won’t believe it because the Labour Government has lost a lot of its credibility.  There are major trust issues at stake, and Muscat & co have squandered a lot of the goodwill which was built up way back pre-2013, through their own actions and in some cases, lack of action.  As if to confirm this yet again, we read the news that the premise of the Central Link project has been built on one, big fat lie. 

Architect and environmental activist Tara Cassar wrote this week that, “it is absolutely not true that the 2006 local plans made provisions for the widening of the road extending from the western end of Triq Tumas Chetcuti to the Mdina/Zebbuġ roundabout leading to Rabat, into a 4-lane bypass. Nor did the 2006 local plans make provisions for the widening of the road from the eastern end of Triq Oliver Agius to the MFSA junction in Mrieħel, into a 6-lane bypass, as was approved in the Central Link road-widening project.”

How long can we keep catching this administration in lies and still keep giving it the benefit of the doubt?  In the light of this, should the authorities be really that surprised that many members of the public gaze at those flyovers overhead and wonder if risky shortcuts are being taken which could pose a real danger to us all?