The controversial underwater tunnel between Malta and Gozo has inched a step closer to fruition, with a preliminary report saying it is “doable” and paving the way for a full-feasibility study.

Accessibility to Gozo is a life link for Gozitans and its effect on them is tremendous

The study has concluded that the fixed link is both physically and economically viable but points out that detailed geological information was unavailable and is required to analyse the impact on the environment, construction methods and cost.

As a result, the financial estimates are an approximation at best. The cost range of the shortest, single-bore alternative is between €156 million and half a billion, according to the report. When the idea was floated last year, the link was estimated to cost about €150 million.

Approximate construction cost, based on a number of existing tunnels, is calculated to range between €19 million and €60 million per kilometre while maintenance would amount to between €4 million and €6 million a year.

But the pre-feasibility study shows that tolls from the tunnel, if based on current ferry costs, including any subsidies, could cover operating expenses, leaving a significant surplus.

According to an EU directive, a twin-bore tunnel would be required if a 15-year forecast showed the traffic volume would exceed 10,000 vehicles per day. But it was unlikely this would be the case in Malta, meaning the link between the islands could have a single bore, which is less expensive, although a twin tube would avoid head-on collisions and complete closure for maintenance.

The tunnel would take about seven years to build but no time frames for the second study have been established.

Carried out by Mott Macdonald, appointed by Transport Malta last summer, the pre-feasibility report proposes four potential links: three bored beneath the seabed and passing under Comino and another, an immersed tube tunnel, lying on it.

That option would have the most impact on the environment, including Gozo’s coastal landscape, and was, therefore, considered the most challenging.

One of the shortest distances was 8.2 kilometres, passing beneath Comino, with portals on the southern slope of Marfa Ridge and north of Mġarr in Gozo. In that case, the main impact on the environment would be at the portal locations, which the report said needed to be carefully considered.

The second phase, which Cabinet has approved, would also study bridge options, an upgraded ferry service and other combinations as well as methods of financing. It would have to assess various alternatives to qualify for external funding.

It has been established, however, that the tunnel would be on the TEN-T network and would, therefore, be eligible for EU co-financing.

The presentation of the report findings by David Sutton from Transport Malta was attended by Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt, Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono and Justice Minister Chris Said, the latter having set the initiative rolling at the start of 2011.

Last year, Cabinet had decided to carry out a preliminary study, laying the foundations to build the second phase, which would now analyse social and environmental effects, Dr Said explained, adding that the debate aroused would continue.

“The government would take a final decision once all reports were in hand,” he said.

Accessibility to Gozo was a “life link” for Gozitans, the ministers insisted, and its effect on them was “tremendous”.

The tunnel would cut crossing time from 25 to eight minutes, decreasing the average journey by at least 40 minutes and saving commuters hours.

If it resulted that the proposed tunnel was “environmentally viable, structurally doable and made economic sense, the government would commit to building it,” Dr Gatt said.

“This is not an investment in infrastructure but in quality of life, which would change drastically for Gozitans,” he said.

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