Traffic congestion is arguably the most critical challenge facing the country. It is not only a cause of unnecessary financial costs but also affects the quality of life of road users. With cars flooding the roads, the need for a compelling long-term traffic management strategy has never been so acute.

The short-term road widening programme is undoubtedly helping to ease some of the pressure. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this will ever be enough. Even if the population stops growing at the fast rate of the last few years, the collateral damage of having far too many cars on our roads is severe enough to prompt immediate action to invest in alternative means of mass transportation.

Konrad Xuereb, an architectural and structural engineer, wrote an inspiring opinion piece in The Sunday Times of Malta in which he covered the main issues relating to an investment in a metro transportation system that would provide underground passage between the most densely populated areas of the island, and connect Gozo with Malta.

A preliminary cost-benefit analysis reveals the advantages of having an underground transport system as opposed to limiting traffic management improvements to overground. Convenience is probably the best-selling point of a modern, well-conceived metro system. Underground travel is much quicker than other modes of transportation, with none of the congestion created by traffic to contend with.

The technology also exists that makes the design and management of an underground transport system safe. Studies carried out in countries that have recently introduced metro systems indicate that ditching the car and using public transport, including the metro, saves lives, as car accidents are more likely to threaten the safety of travellers than public transport.

As Dr Xuereb also rightly pointed out, a metro system is more environmentally friendly than other motorised transport. Electrically driven metro trains do not emit harmful exhaust fumes as overground vehicles do. A metro system avoids the destruction of trees and undeveloped land, an essential consideration in a country that is experiencing a constant deterioration in its natural environment.

The protection of yet undiscovered archaeological sites, as well as the water table, can be built into the excavation plans for a new metro system. So long as proper feasibility studies are made on the technical, financial, safety and environmental implications of a metro project there is no reason why risks cannot be adequately managed to optimise the investment in such a modern means of mass transportation that the country needs so badly.

It seems that the government sees the merits of the metro system as outlined by Dr Xuereb. It is encouraging to note that Transport Minister Ian Borg has met him, presumably to discuss his ideas. While the government seems to already be working with a UK engineering firm to develop metro plans, it is essential that the public is made aware of what these plans envisage.

The most logical sequence of events should include an in-principle agreement at the political level to invest in a metro project that will evolve over a number of years. Ideally the public should be able to express its opinion on this project. Keeping Parliament and the people in the dark even at this early stage of defining the metro project concept is not conducive to winning over the support of society on this matter.

A second important priority is to set up a competent steering committee once the feasibility studies are completed and approved by Parliament. It is the steering committee that should ensure that progress on the delivery of the project is according to plan. Such massive projects almost inevitably face formidable challenges, including cost overruns and technical obstacles that may not be evident at the planning stage.

Spending an estimated €4 billion on such an ambitious project is indeed a tremendous financial burden for this and the next generation. However, we need to be ambitious for the sake of our future prosperity. This is why the government needs to make known its plans for a modern metro system.

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