It’s not normal for me to involve myself in public discussions but after some days of thinking and without in any way trying to give the impression of being some form of strategic thinker, I’ve decided to put pen to paper and share my honest views on guaranteeing a future for Gozo and the Gozitans. The issue is too important to remain silent and watch from the sidelines.

Over the last years, especially during these last few months and weeks, I came across various opinions on the need or otherwise of a Gozo-Malta permanent link. Here is a personal dissection of the main points being made.

Why do we need to have a permanent link to Gozo?

The same way Malta is investing €700 million in upgrading its road infrastructure to cater for increased demands, I believe Gozo needs to have a future where guaranteed and improved accessibility will inject a new lease of life to an otherwise moribund region, whittling away towards certain death. This investment in the north of Malta will not only benefit Gozo and the Gozitans but all of Malta, the same way the Kappara, Marsa and other infrastructural projects did/will do.

What’s so wrong in having Gozo directly connected to Malta’s transport grid? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to restrict Marsaxlokk residents to travel to work, hospital appointments and other mundane daily routines using a ferry? Imagine for a moment that at the end of each working day you’re delayed to reach home by a minimum of 90 minutes. Ever thought of finding the main road leading home closed on a daily basis?

I come across daily public complaints from road users in Malta about traffic bottlenecks. To this end I fully support initiatives that seem to have been ramped up and prioritised to tackle these bottlenecks in our road networks. I note that most of these initiatives have started to bear fruit. Now stop, think. Why should it be any different for Gozo?

Gozitans travelling to Malta experience these bottlenecks, these ‘road closures’, these daily transport challenges over and above others faced by Malta road users on a daily basis. On average, a Gozitan travelling to Malta spends a minimum daily 90 minutes more than what a Mellieħa resident takes to travel to/from the same place.

Some argue that Gozo will be ruined if the project goes ahead.

I wonder where this comes from. Is it our collective inability to think in a structured manner? I’m sorry to disappoint you but I firmly believe there is no direct correlation between guaranteed and unhindered accessibility and overdevelopment.

Of course, I understand that Gozo, with all its potential, will face increased development pressures once the connectivity and accessibility issue is settled. How do you tackle this? How are we restricting overdevelopment from happening in Mdina? Certainly not by closing all roads leading to it. While overdevelopment is and will remain a major concern for parts of Malta and Gozo that surely deserve to have their character preserved for us and for our future generations, these concerns are best tackled with robust planning policies and strict ongoing enforcement.

Is this investment a priority for Malta?

Apart from the discriminatory undertones of this statement, I do believe that the fact that this investment will be largely a private one is being ignored on purpose. One can argue that, similarly to other infrastructural projects, the government should pay for this, just like the government pays for the transport infrastructure network across the islands, without much discussion or fanfare.

Gozitans are not even asking for this freebie. The permanent link is earmarked to have a toll structure where the sacred user-pays-principle applies. First and foremost, there is no such thing as a free meal in life.

Gozitans are made to believe that intense seasonal activity is a reality they have to accept forever

A toll structure can also be used as a demand control mechanism. Secondly, it ensures that Gozo retains the premium destination status it has, something we’ve all worked hard for along the years.

So, once and for all, the taxpayer is not even being asked to fund this major project. The private sector will. In return, the government (the people) will give a years-long concession to the operator so it can recoup the investment made plus an acceptable return on investment. What’s wrong with that? The fact that various private operators are showing interest in funding and operating this project removes any doubt about its long-term sustainability.

Gozo, some complain, will be invaded by people and cars and what we need is a metro.

Part of the scaremongering campaign I’ve witnessed over the last years seems to prefer this line of thought. Apparently, there exists an agenda to maintain the obvious economic potential that Gozo has underdeveloped on purpose.

It appears that a group of people are happy to see slower economic growth registered year on year in Gozo compared to the mainland. Gozitans are made to believe that intense seasonal activity is a reality they have to accept forever. Lower household incomes are somehow justified. That having their properties valued at a fraction of similar properties on the mainland is a fact of life. Foreign direct investment is anathema to Gozo.

A simple root cause analysis would clearly indicate that the lack of a secure connection between the islands, guaranteeing accessibility, as the cause of the handicaps Gozitans have grown accustomed to.

Just ask a restaurateur in Marsalforn and s/he will confirm that the weather vane impacts the activity of his/her cash register any day of the year. Will any foreign investor accept these weather vane risks? The answer is obvious.

The metro issue is something that was brought up rather recently. Just like a card up one’s sleeve. A diversionary tactic meant to cloud the thinking.

No one in his right mind will argue against a metro system for all of Malta, including a channel connection but we’re years away from this dream to come true. Should we stop the tunnel from materialising until such time that we have a metro in place?

Ask yourself: should we close all roads leading to your village if/when a metro is installed? Till we get there, strong indications exist that a permanent link between the islands will open up opportunities for direct public transport links between the islands that will reduce dependency on private vehicles and minimise inconvenience to the thousands of people that cross the channel.

So, yes, for a road to Gozo and, yes, for a metro system for all of Malta. One does not exclude the other.

I believe that, over the last decades, different administrations went to great lengths to improve the lives of all Maltese and Gozitans. New sectors were sought, developed, incentivised and sustained. Although discussed repeatedly, somehow we’ve allowed the Gozo issue to remain dormant, the potential left shelved happy to give unsustainable handouts and freebies that will never solve the issue, just like steroids.

Although resilient by our own nature, Gozitans are growing tired of operating within these confines and are abandoning their Gozo dream in droves, killing Gozo in the process.

This is a cry for help, let’s give Gozo and Gozitans the chance they deserve. The rewards are obvious for you, for us and for all of Malta.

Ivan Falzon is a Gozitan who works in Malta.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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