Parliament on Wednesday granted its unanimous support to the construction of a permanent link between Malta and Gozo in what Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg described as a “historic moment” from which there was no turning back.
The House also approved various amendments moved by the Opposition.
Introducing the motion, Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana dismissed fears that Gozo’s unique character would be lost as a result of the link, stating that it was up to the Gozo Regional Development Authority to ensure that the resultant development would not have any deleterious effects.
Tourism and economic growth were already having effects on Gozo, and the Ministry for Gozo was working on various initiatives to combat these effects, including a de-carbonisation strategy.
Opposition MP Chris Said, who had been a key proponent of the project, said Gozitans were extremely dependent on connectivity with the Maltese mainland, and that successive governments had done their best to develop such connectivity.
The permanent link had recently gained momentum, he added, having been included in the electoral manifestos of both the Labour and Nationalist parties in 2017 and following initial studies in 2011. This would be the third legislature to consider the project seriously, and the size of the project meant it merited a serious discussion.
Dr Said emphasised the burdens borne by those who were forced to commute from Gozo on a daily basis. At a minimum, he said, these Gozitans faced an additional 15 hours of travel when compared to their Maltese counterparts. The permanent link would prevent Gozo from becoming a society of pensioners, as Gozitans would be able to remain resident in Gozo while working in Malta with greater ease, and a 2018 study Dr Vincent Marmarà had found that 83% of those in Malta and Gozo - especially among the younger generations - were in favour of the project.
Dr Said enumerated various amendments which the Opposition was putting forward to ensure that the project was executed “with attention to the common good.” Among other changes to the motion, the amendments would bind the government to carry out all necessary studies with alacrity and to publish all studies which had been carried out.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat compared the project to the roads leading to Valletta and to Rabat, arguing that infrastructural projects of this nature did not necessarily lead to loss of character in places to which they led. It was up to the competent authorities, he added, to ensure that they did not.
He added that the motion before the House would not give the government a blank cheque, but would simply express Parliament’s will for the project to be carried out in the most general terms.
Turning to the issue of whether to proceed with an above-ground undersea tunnel or with an underground tunnel, he stated that the exact method by which the project would be executed remained to be seen.
However, attempts to minimise the production of construction waste by choosing the former of the two options would lead to massive and irreparable damage to the undersea biosphere.
Should any excavated material be used for land reclamation, he added, it would not necessarily lead to an industrial or commercial use for the reclaimed land. He pointed out that, although the Malta Freeport was the first land reclamation project which came to mind when the subject was broached, Msida was also the result of land reclamation which, admittedly, had not been executed “brilliantly”.
Referring to the Prime Minister’s comments on the Opposition’s insistence on short-term stopgap measures to ease Gozitans’ commute, Opposition Leader Adrian Delia denied the claim that the Opposition was expecting the government to run roughshod over the adjudication process which was holding up the tender for fast-ferry services. Instead, the Opposition was calling for interim solutions to be identified and provided.
Winding up, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg said Gozitans could no longer be expected to depend on good weather to get to work on time. The tunnel would better unite Malta and Gozo while also mitigating the exodus of Gozitans who uprooted themselves to seek better opportunities in Malta.
After approving the motion, the House rose for the Easter recess.
Sittings will resume on May 6.