The government’s pledge to build a tunnel to Gozo has raised some serious
concerns. Sarah Carabott speaks to Gozitan active citizen Daniel Cilia.
The biggest misconception about the tunnel is that it is going to have an emergency lane, Mr Cilia claims.
According to Transport Malta’s project description, the tunnel will be a single tube with two lanes, one in each direction, with 90-metre-long emergency lay-bys at 250-300 metre intervals alternating on both sides and a one-metre-wide shoulder at either side.
“There is clearly no planned emergency lane and there will be long tailbacks if a vehicle stops in one of the lanes,” predicts Mr Cilia.
“How will an ambulance or a fire engine reach an accident site? I know many pro-tunnel people will say that this is scaremongering. I’m just being realistic.”
Mr Cilia drew comparisons between the proposed Gozo-Malta tunnel and that of Mont Blanc, connecting Italy with France.
In 1999, a Belgian truck carrying margarine and flour went up in flames inside the tunnel. The incident claimed the lives of 38 drivers and a firefighter.
The tunnel was closed for more than three years and opened only after extensive repairs and a redesign that included new security measures. Nowadays all merchandise trucks commuting through the tunnel are scanned for heat emissions, he said.
Mr Cilia, who spends a lot of time in Italy on work, said there were plans to excavate an adjacent tunnel to the one under Mont Blanc and another next to the Fréjus Road tunnel, which also connects France and Italy. These extensions would allow for an emergency lane to be accommodated.
What if an accident happens?
Are you in favour of the tunnel? “This isn’t an easy question to answer. Of course, after waiting for several hours in the queues at Mġarr or Ċirkewwa, one desperately dreams of having a tunnel.
“But the dreams soon fizzle out with news of yet another accident in the two-lane Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland, which does not have an emergency lane either.”
A recent fatal accident in April closed the tunnel creating a five-kilometre tailback.
What if the tunnel closed for years?
According to 2018 national data, 5,758,000 passengers and 1,666,000 vehicles travelled between the two islands. If the tunnel attracted most of these crossings, what would happen to the Gozo channel fleet – would it dwindle to a single ferry, he asked.
“What if, due to some accident or refurbishment, the tunnel would have to close for years? Would we be able to quickly bring over ferries to cater for the sudden loss of vehicular traffic through the tunnel?
“And if the ferries remain, can the tunnel compete financially with an efficient fleet that could offer trips to different harbours in Malta at a lower price?”
What about a fourth ferry?
“As the Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana has explained in the past, if a fourth ferry was adapted to berth at Mġarr and Ċirkewwa, there would still be a huge problem: where would it berth at night?”
Finding a permanent night berth in Grand Harbour and keeping the new ferry at Mġarr could be a viable solution, according to Mr Cilia.
Back in 1990, the Gozo ferry company was operating five vessels, including a fast one between Mġarr, Sliema and Sa Maison. Sometimes there were also stops at Marsalforn, Comino and St Paul’s Bay.
In 2015 it was decided that the yacht marina at Sa Maison would replace the Gozo Channel berth which had served in the transportation of merchandise to and from Gozo for decades.
“When the Planning Authority gave its go-ahead to the Pieta yacht-marina, it was said that talks were being held with a view to relocating the Gozo Channel berth to the Grand Harbour. This was nearly four years ago. I guess these talks are taking a lot of coffee breaks.”