The planned Gozo Tunnel project is an economically, socially and environmentally flawed scheme. The project had its genesis in an economic cost-benefit analysis – ‘Establishing a permanent link between the island of Gozo and mainland Malta: An economic cost-benefit analysis of available strategic options’ – prepared for the Gozo Business Chamber and Transport Malta in September 2015.

It was an appraisal greeted by the then prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and the then leader of the Opposition, Simon Busuttil, as evidence that digging a tunnel was the best and most feasible option.

The policy assumptions underlying the report were two-fold: that “the island of Gozo fares worse than the national average on a number of indicators due to insurmountable obstacles related to smallness, double insularity and peripheral problems” and that “increased connectivity through a permanent link between Malta and Gozo would contribute to reducing the gap in the socio-economic standing between the two islands”.

But the study used very little empirical data and was based largely on estimates (with no details on how those estimates were arrived at) and a cost-benefit model. A sound and rigorous empirical basis, covering such key issues as the impact of larger traffic volumes on Gozo, the concomitant impact on traffic volumes (and travel time) in Malta on major routes to the tunnel entrance, as well as, overridingly, alternative ferry routes and more ambitious maritime connections, were not considered.

Moreover, the purpose of the study was not to determine the alternative options most likely to lead to better socio-economic outcomes for people living in Gozo, or what feasible measures could be taken that would have the highest economic rates of return and the fewest negative by-products.

Instead, the decision was taken from the outset that the inadequacy of the ferry link was the main factor affecting the island’s “double insularity” and “connectivity” – arguments not demonstrated or sustained by the cost-benefit analysis.

The study was simply limited to examining three scenarios: option 1, continuation of the existing ferry operation; option 2, linking both islands by means of a bridge; and option 3, a sub-seabed tunnel, plus the retention of 20 per cent of the ferry service operating alongside. Other options (for example, a faster ferry service, the reintroduction of a regular light aircraft service, or broader maritime links) were excluded.

A model confined to just three possibilities cannot produce a convincing case that only one of these three possibilities is the best way to improve the “socio-economic standing” of Gozo. Indeed, in fairness, the cost benefit analysis made no such claim. It stated plainly that its sole purpose was to evaluate three pre-selected options.

What was important, clearly, was how the study would be treated politically and the extent to which it would drive policy formulation and public investment decisions.

The plan to dig a tunnel to Gozo should be reconsidered by the new administration

Nobody disputes that Gozo suffers economic and social disadvantages (the population of Gozo represents just over seven per cent of the archipelago, but its GDP is only about five per cent of the national total). But the superficial level of data and analysis in the study fails utterly to produce the conclusive evidence to justify the massive public investment, environmental disruption and Gozo’s potential loss of unique character, which the construction of a tunnel would entail.

Indeed, there are a number of key factors in the 2015 analysis which should have set alarm bells ringing with policymakers before they rushed into decisions on essentially political grounds.

The first is the capital expenditure costs. These were calculated on the basis of the average cost per kilometre of building undersea tunnels in Norway. The comparison is faulty. First, the type of rock through which Norwegian tunnels are bored is, I understand, completely different to the sub-sea limestone rock between Malta and Gozo. Second, no geological studies were carried out on the undersea route, an issue which drew sharp criticism from a leading Maltese geologist.

There are no empirical variables included in arriving at the estimated cost of €100 million, despite the fact that cost estimations of tunnel projects are notoriously rarely accurate. Cost overruns are common, caused by the very nature of ‘estimates’ submitted for such projects and the combination of organisational and technical factors that arise when cost-estimates come up against the complex geological and sub-sea realities of such projects.

The second factor is the increasingly pressing issue of energy efficiency. Malta is under strong EU pressure to reduce carbon emissions and the silent killer of air pollution. Cars are the major contributors to both.

The argument in the study based on the ‘economic value of time’ (the average time for a ferry crossing is 50 minutes compared to 12 minutes for the tunnel crossing) takes no account of traffic congestion during rush-hour peak times, no allowance for accidents or breakdowns. This assumed optimism is neither explained nor credible.

A narrow and deceptive study five years ago was deemed sufficient by the Muscat administration at the time – joined parrot-fashion by the Busuttil Opposition – to proceed with the project, prompted by the political importance both major parties gave the project in the run-up to the 2017 general election.

The importance of that political decision demonstrates how perilous it is to rely on a model-driven analysis produced by a cost-benefit study that by its very nature produced little qualitative or quantitative analysation and scant and unreliable supporting data. Inevitably, because public investment has such a strong electoral significance, confidence in the objectivity of the analysis is weakened.

Since 2015, there has been a radical shift of political, economic, environmental and social factors affecting such a major investment decision. The facts have changed. The plan to dig a tunnel to Gozo should be reconsidered by the new administration.

The tunnel project should be abandoned. Technical and financial feasibility studies should focus on the urgent need to give priority to the immediate expansion of waterborne transport links between Gozo and focal point areas in Malta (such as Buġibba, Sliema, Valletta and Cottonera), and the long-term investment in a rapid mass public transit system linking major population centres throughout the island.

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