The controversial Central Link road upgrade project secured planning permission on Thursday after a long and heated Planning Authority hearing.
The PA board voted in favour of the project by seven votes to three at the end of a packed four-hour meeting in which numerous residents, local farmers, cyclists and environmental groups voiced their opposition. Several residents also spoke in favour of the project, which promises to ease travel times in the area.
NGO representative Annick Bonello and Opposition representative Marthese Portelli, and Attard local council representative Giorgio Schembri voted against the project, citing environmental and cultural concerns, the impact on residents’ quality of life, and the risk of the project merely inducing more traffic in the area.
The rest of the board, including government representative Clayton Bartolo and Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) chairman Victor Axiak supported the project. Prof Axiak, whose authority had expressed “significant concerns” about the project, remained silent throughout the meeting.
The announcement of the vote prompted loud cheers from supporters while cries of “shame on you” and “we will appeal” were heard from objectors.
The €55 million project is intended to alleviate traffic congestion in Attard's village core, and stretches from the Mrieħel bypass to the foot of Saqqajja Hill on the outskirts of Rabat, incorporating new lanes, junctions and other infrastructure.
The project has drawn a raft of objections, including the environment watchdog’s concerns, over the uprooting of 549 trees, half of them protected species, and the loss of 49,000 square metres of virgin land, some of which is actively worked by farmers.
A number of historic structures close to St Paul’s Chapel, in Attard, will have to make way.
Farmers make impassioned plea for livelihood to be protected
During the hearing, several farmers whose land is set to be taken up lamented the lack of consultation over the project and urged the authorities to find alternative solutions to the traffic problem.
One farmer said the area was still rich in land on which farmers lived and worked, and insisted that while the traffic problem could be addressed with redesigns and improved management, agricultural land would be lost “forever” under the current plans.
Insistence by the project’s representatives that they had consulted with farmers was met with derision by those present.
Astrid Vella from Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar took aim at the government’s claims that the 549 uprooted trees would be replanted, pointing out the low success rate of such efforts and insisting the road’s characteristic Aleppo pines were part of the country’s natural heritage.
Let’s drop the myth that the transplanted trees will all survive- Environmentalist
“Let’s drop the myth that the transplanted trees will all survive,” she said.
PN MP and former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil highlighted the plight faced by some 1,200 residents whose houses would be sandwiched between new roads, and would find themselves “living in a centre-strip”.
“Every public policy should have quality of life as its primary objective,” Dr Busuttil said. “Even if there are benefits to be gained they should be weighed against the damage to residents.”
PN deputy leader David Agius added that while the Opposition saw the need for the project, it believed it could be implemented better and with less harm to residents’ quality of life and farmers’ livelihoods.
A handful of residents spoke in favour of the project, pointing mainly to the possibility of shorter travel times and less congestion within the village core.
Various alternatives, including a tunnel, were considered - architect
The government architect said various alternatives to the project had been considered and studied – including a tunnel – but that none had delivered the benefits of the proposed plans.
He stressed that without the project, the area would be facing total gridlock and dangerous levels of emissions within 10 years, and that a social impact assessment had found that more than four in five supported the project.
He added that the project would including safe pedestrian footpaths, improved bus lay-bys and cycle paths, and that 766 trees would be planted to compensate for those uprooted.
According to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment, without the upgrade project, peak morning travel times would increase nearly three times over by 2030, and more than eight times over by 2045.
However, even with the project in place, travel times will not be reduced below 2019 levels, and will in fact increase marginally in the same time frame, with any benefits being cancelled out by the 33 new cars currently being added to the roads every day.
The EIA also cited “clear evidence that new or expanded roads rapidly fill with displaced or induced traffic, offsetting any short-term gains in eased traffic flows”.