An EU directive deals with the minimum safety requirements for tunnels (Directive 2004/54/EC). It specifies that all new tunnels for cars require an emergency exit every 500 metres.
Emergency exits should lead from the tunnel directly to the outside but, where this is not possible, exits to adjoining parallel tunnel tubes are also acceptable.
This may seem to be very stringent but it is based on decades of EU transport authorities’ experience of road tunnels.
A car crash could result in a fire. No matter how small, a fire in a confined space will take away the oxygen, meaning that people could suffocate from lack of oxygen and smoke inhalation.
Emergency exits allow tunnel users to walk to a safe place in the event of an incident and also provide access on foot to the tunnel for emergency services.
A very important question is this: Will the tunnel be safe? With a single tunnel tube, the EU directive cannot be met. A second tube is not an option because of the cost.
The government may choose to ignore the directive but this would expose it to legal challenges. More crucially, if the tunnel is perceived to be unsafe, many people will choose not to use it.
As much as safety is vital, there are other important questions that need to be addressed.
How much will the tunnel cost? Up to a few months ago, the figure of €300 million was being mentioned. More recently, nothing has been said about the cost. It seems the authorities have come to realise how unrealistic that estimate was, more so when dealing with so many unknowns.
The Gozo tunnel will be 13 kilometres long – a length that is technically very challenging, even for experienced designers and contractors.
The cost per kilometre run of tunnel is higher for longer tunnels because of increased time and effort required to transport workers and materials in and out of the tunnel.
Another difficulty in longer tunnels is ensuring that air quality remains of sufficiently high standard, during construction and eventually when in operation.
The decision to go ahead with the tunnel is reckless and irresponsible
The presence of fissures in the rock may create further technical difficulties relating to structural stability and water ingress, especially during construction.
These are all factors that point to escalating costs.
Then there is the added cost of disposing of over a million cubic metres of excavated material.
Who will pay for it? There was a time that project proponents claimed that it would be financed by the private sector who would generate enough income to cover the capital and running cost.
More recently, the authorities are not saying how it will be financed but everything points to public funding.
Let’s make some calculations. Including the cost of waste disposal, let us assume a total cost of €800 million. That works out at €1,800 per person of the population.
So, a Maltese household of four persons who may occasionally visit Gozo will be forking out €7,200 for the privilege.
Given that there is a viable alternative, the ferry service, the decision to go ahead with the tunnel is reckless and irresponsible.
Will the benefits justify the cost? Only recently it was announced that the cost-benefit analysis was being updated. That is good news because hopefully that will let us know what the real costs and benefits will be. Going by the information that is currently available, the usage of the tunnel will not be remotely sufficient to justify the huge costs and the significant risks.
How will the inert waste generated from the tunnel be disposed of? One million cubic metres of inert waste will be excavated.
That amount of waste cannot be disposed of on land, not unless the government wants to create a few Magħtab-like hills in Malta and Gozo.
The alternative is land reclamation. This will have severe environmental implications with the loss of a significant stretch of natural coastline, either at Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq or Xgħajra.
The environmental impact of the land reclamation is a non-financial cost that must be factored into the cost-benefit analysis, as should the various environmental impacts on the land around the tunnel mouths.
An Environmental Impact Assessment is being carried out. This is an essential requirement for the eventual development permit, but it is not enough. According to national legislation and EU directives, any plan or programme that is likely to have a significant effect on the environment should be subjected to a Strategic Environmental Assessment.
The implications of the tunnel project are far reaching for both Malta and Gozo, but especially for Gozo and hence the project should be considered tantamount to a programme requiring a SEA.
Before the summer recess, Parliament agreed that the Gozo tunnel should go ahead.
The parliamentary debate was very disappointing, not only for the outcome but also for the way our elected representatives decided without reference to any reliable information.
There are so many questions, on safety, cost, environmental impacts and method of waste disposal. These and other questions remain unanswered.
John Ebejer is a lecturer at the University of Malta.