Tuesday 07 December 2021

20 more years of roadworks for the Metro? No thanks!

Would these three men commute daily using the Metro?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

In the area close to where I live, three side roads have been dug up simultaneously and are still in disarray as I write. Deep, potentially dangerous trenches have been dug up in front of people’s homes, with makeshift planks for them to access their front doors, but there is no way for them to enter their garages so they have to leave their cars outside This has led to a substantial decrease in parking spaces which has spilled over to other streets. Using your car means you are taking the risk of losing your precious space which, at the busiest time of day, is worth its weight in gold as you drive around in circles, praying you will see someone pointing their car key fob at a vehicle and hearing that magic bleep which signals they are vacating the spot.

The roads which are being rebuilt have been left to deteriorate to their pitiful, potholed state for over 30 years. So the news that they were finally going to be done was welcomed. Yet, one month later, there is no end in sight to the upheaval and chaos the roadworks in this one small neighbourhood have caused.  Basically what I have described has repeated itself non-stop all over the country; I am sure all of those reading this, no matter where you live, can describe similar scenarios.

So, in the light of all this, let us just say that the unveiling of the proposal for the long talked about Metro idea did not exactly fill with me sparks of joy.  In fact, it was the complete opposite of a Marie Kondo moment. It was more like being swept by a feeling of dark foreboding and dread. Kind of like the music from Jaws whenever the unseen shark is about to take a bite out of a hapless swimmer. The project is estimated that it will cost around €6.25 billion and will take over 15-20 years to complete. 

The sheer length of time it will take is a bad enough prospect to contemplate; after all, 20 years is a whole generation. Just think about that and let it sink in for a minute. It means today’s babies will be at university. Those in their 20s will be entering middle age, those in their 30s will be experiencing their first mid-life crisis, those in their 40s will hit 60 and start being referred to as ‘elderly’, and as for those who are currently in their 50s and 60s…well, you get the picture.  Are we seriously expected to live the rest of our lives surrounded by perpetual, relentless nation-wide roadworks and diversions so that maybe, maybe, there is an off chance that commuters will stop using their private cars and hop onto the Metro instead? And if you think digging up roads for Metro stations won’t cause upheaval, I invite you to take a look at Exhibit A described in my first paragraph… the absurd length of time it takes for contractors to finish one short, single stretch of road. 

The Metro idea has always been a non-starter in my opinion, no matter which party proposed it.  I wonder if it is a coincidence that the last time it was in the news it was also around election time, in May 2017, only back then it was Simon Busuttil for the PN who unveiled the proposal.  When he announced it, he promised that the first of the four lines would be up and running within five years and the whole project was estimated at €2.3 billion.

I felt it was an unfeasible, ridiculous idea for Malta back then, and today, four years later, my feelings haven’t changed. As for the billions being quoted with such abandon I have to question how the estimated cost for this hare-brained idea could triple in such a short time.  And, excuse me for pointing out a minor detail, but where exactly will all this money come from, especially when the deficit this year is expected to reach €1.5 billion?  I found my answer from a report by London-based consultancy firm Arup: “The base case study in the report assumes that capital costs would be financed using government-raised debt but recommends that additional funding be found from other sources.”

We are also told that it will take 37 years for the Government to recoup the costs. 

The whole proposal to me sounds like one of those very fancy, flashy ideas which politicians like to pull out of a hat at election time which sound great on paper, but are only applauded by those who live on Fantasy Island. It is like when a couple which is already up to their eyeballs in debt because they have been living beyond their means for years, thinks it would be a good idea to take out yet another loan and purchase an old house of character in dire need of renovation which will further drain their finances.  Then they find themselves glaring at each other accusingly and resentfully over the kitchen table a few years later, stressed and angry because the house is still far from being ready, the roof is leaking and they have run out of money.

The careless, nonchalant way that politicians talk about all these billions is also something which infuriates me.  There seems to be a complete disconnect between what the country really needs and what politicians who want to be re-elected by promising more construction jobs, think we need. It would make a refreshing change to hear, for example, that funds will be funnelled towards the essential sectors in society which are terribly underpaid, namely educators, nurses and all those in the caring professions. This administration should be investing in Human Resources by paying them well to ensure that the very best are attracted to these sectors, rather than seeing more and more teachers quitting their profession altogether. 

Ultimately, however, as I (and several others) have written before, the wisdom of putting the country through yet more roadwork chaos while incurring more debt all boils down to one thing: will people actually use the blessed Metro or not?  I might have missed it, but I have not seen any opinion poll which gauges how the public feels about the idea and whether, when it comes to the crunch, they will actually trudge down towards their nearest Metro stop and use the underground to go to work, take their children to school or extracurricular activities, to go shopping and any of the other plethora of errands which see our roads choked with traffic every day.  Think about your day to day life, be honest and ask yourself: would you use the Metro rather than your private car?  

Speaking to Malta Today’s James Debono, Prof Maria Attard, the head of the University’s geography department and director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development summed up the issue perfectly:  “I cannot understand why we keep avoiding “low-hanging fruits” such as cheaper, more feasible, mass transport options that can be implemented in the short-term…and promising expensive (if not unsustainable) infrastructures that will take a long time to happen and doing nothing in the meantime to rationalise car use and shift to healthier, more active travel.”

Put succinctly,  no Government has been really that serious about discouraging private car use, probably for fear of rocking the boat with car importers and the owners of petrol stations. Even the laudable idea to make public transport free for everyone (something which many used to claim was unfeasible) will not come into effect until this time next year.  Many other Budget measures were implemented immediately or will come into effect shortly, so why not this one?  There are a myriad number of solutions and incentives which cost nothing and could be introduced overnight if the Government had the will to do so. 

It obviously does not. 

Instead it prefers us to remain stuck in back-to-back traffic for eternity, surrounded by dug up roads, trenches and men in yellow vests, providing them with a never ending supply of mega projects which will drag on for decades, as we grow old and grey waiting for the country’s infrastructure to finally be finished.

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