Transport and Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia sat down with Mark Laurence Zammit to discuss his plans to tackle traffic, road deaths and infrastructural work.
MLZ: We’re filming this interview just 24 hours after a driver killed a pedestrian. It is the second pedestrian fatality this year. The tragic incident follows a record number of road deaths last year – 26 in all. You are not to blame for the accidents, but you are still responsible to ensure they don’t happen. Don’t you feel somewhat responsible after seeing yesterday’s incident?
AF: I’m human, and like everyone else I am deeply saddened. I have two daughters and one of them could have been the victim yesterday. Last year’s record road deaths also say a lot. Those aren’t just numbers, but families, children, parents and siblings. This is why we have drafted a comprehensive plan with experts to have safer roads. There is no magic wand that will solve all problems. Every few seconds, someone in the world dies on the road.
MLZ: But does that make it OK for it to happen in Malta?
AF: Not at all. I meant we’re addressing this problem on a European level as well. For the first time in Malta we will introduce a body to investigate traffic accidents – not to assign blame, like the magisterial inquiry does – but to understand how the accident happened and recommend what can be done to avoid accidents like it in the future. We should have this new authority after February. We will also enshrine the Malta Road Safety Council into the law, enhance ‘don’t drink and drive’ campaigns throughout the year, not just in Christmas, and we will introduce harsher fines and licence points.
MLZ: How much will the fines be?
AF: It’s not an issue of how much...
MLZ: Yes, it is, because if fines are a mere €100, offenders might not care. But if they’re €5,000, for instance... that might be much more of a deterrent.
AF: How and by how much will be announced in the coming weeks. We will also further educate children how to use the road and begin implementing a culture shift towards a safer mode of transport. All of this will hopefully yield the desired results, but I want to make one thing clear – everyone shares responsibility. I have seen accidents happen that weren’t the driver’s fault. I’ve seen accidents happen because a pedestrian crossed the road carelessly when they could have used a pedestrian crossing a few metres down the road.
MLZ: Yesterday’s incident was for sure not the victim’s fault.
AF: Of course not, but we cannot speak about yesterday’s case.
MLZ: We can, because she died. And people are thinking: “next time it could be me”. People feel the roads have become more dangerous than they have ever been.
AF: We’re moving forward. We are steadily delivering a plan that will make our roads safer.
Traffic and public transport
MLZ: What’s the plan on traffic congestion?
AF: What have I done on traffic during the past 10 months since I became minister, you ask...
MLZ: To many people, nothing, because traffic continued to increase.
AF: You would have made this statement to all my predecessors. First of all, traffic is also the responsibility of whoever uses their car. Recently, someone half-jokingly told me that people take pictures of traffic from inside their car. “They’d better switch the camera and take a selfie, because they’re part of the problem,” he told me. I disagreed.
I told him it’s not all their fault because as things stand today, they don’t really have an alternative. Public transport is not reliable. I commend Malta Public Transport for making great improvements on the Arriva service, however. Hand on heart, the service is good.
MLZ: Clearly not good enough. You’re spending millions to make public transport free and it didn’t work.
AF: It did work.
MLZ: It didn’t.
AF: Don’t tell me it didn’t. Recently published figures show that bus users have surpassed pre-pandemic numbers.
MLZ: But that could have happened because many foreign workers are returning after the pandemic and they are using the bus. Maltese people are still not using it.
AF: Those foreign workers could travel by car, but they’re using the bus.
MLZ: It’s not that easy for a foreign worker to travel by car.
AF: It’s not enough. Until we come to a point when public transport is on time and efficient, people will not make the switch. We’re planning on increasing buses and frequency and revising routes. We’re adding 25 new buses to the fleet soon. But that’s not enough. Even if we add 100 buses and introduce stellar routes, the buses will still get stuck in traffic. Therefore, we must tackle buses in traffic if we want the situation to change. Are we ready to consider more bus lanes to allow public transport to flow freely and more quickly?
MLZ: So, what you’re saying is that we need more bus lanes. But that will add traffic because many main roads, like the Coast Road, for instance, will only have one lane for cars.
AF: Is the country ready for it? I want to open this discussion to explore whether we have the support to make this change. If we do, people will have a choice – to either stay in their car in traffic or take a much faster and cheaper public transport. We don’t need to introduce all bus lanes at once. In the beginning we can start slow, just on Sundays, for instance, and see how it goes.
MLZ: So, do you think this is a solution?
AF: Yes, but there’s more. We also need to stagger rush hour activity. Transport Malta found that 70,000 vehicles pour onto the roads every morning during rush hour. We are looking at staggering that intense number of vehicles.
MLZ: What does that mean? Deliveries will have to happen at night, for instance?
AF: Why not? Anyone who has lived abroad knows that goods are delivered before dawn. It’s the peak hour that we need to space out. Could we, for instance, have hospital outpatient appointments be spread throughout the day, instead of all of them being concentrated at 7.30am?
We grew up in a system that got used to scheduling all of its major activities early in the morning and it will be uncomfortable to change the status quo, but that’s what we need to do, and that’s why I’m here – to open a discussion that would help us decide together.
MLZ: Another reality is unfolding. Solutions that we previously hoped would ease traffic are weakening or disappearing.
We barely ever hear anything about the metro anymore, the Gozo tunnel has been shelved, the fast ferry’s frequency is down, car sharing company Cool is leaving, GoTo and Nextbike left, people rarely use Tallinja bikes and e-scooters have created more problems than they solved. To add insult to injury, the increasing fuel prices in Europe could have discouraged Maltese people from using their cars, but the government cushioned fuel prices as well.
AF: It would have been very unfair to allow fuel prices to go up without providing people with a real alternative. But I can answer you on all the others as well. The metro. You know it costs billions, right? What do you expect us to do? Just start digging?
MLZ: But this was your idea. Your government suggested the metro and your government set up an enormous tent in Valletta showing us the routes on the map as well as the planning stations.
AF: The Labour manifesto says we will continue to explore the option of the metro, but we need to find a feasible economic model, because I’m not yet convinced about that. I believe we need the metro and I’m working on it. So, no, we’re not sleeping on that idea. About the tunnel – the prime minister and I discussed it and we agree it’s not a priority right now. As for the fast ferry, we’re waiting for approval from the European Commission to be able to pump millions in state aid that will help the companies offer a better service. We already have a good schedule that has been drafted with the Gozo Ministry and stakeholders.
MLZ: And those that left? Like Cool and Nextbike?
AF: But Uber came a few months ago. It’s a free market where some businesses are coming and some are going. I’ve been told to find ways to subsidise those other means of transport as well, but how much money can the government afford to fork out? We’re already forking out millions annually for free public transport. These are people’s taxes we’re talking about.
MLZ: Do you consider introducing a tax on car use?
AF: No, not at all.
MLZ: But it could be a solution. You could tax households according to the number of cars each household has.
AF: It’s not a solution. A progressive Labour government will not consider that.
MLZ: What about parking meters?
AF: I don’t consider that either. I cannot charge people for using their car when they have no other real alternative.
Regrets and apologies
MLZ: You had passed a comment about village feasts causing traffic... don’t you think it was a mistake?
AF: I’m glad you brought it up because I want to set the record straight. When I said that, I was mentioning an entire list of factors that cause traffic, including the government’s own roadworks. I said we are also part of the problem, and that sometimes road closures because of feasts also cause traffic. But it was just one out of an entire list of factors.
MLZ: In hindsight, do you regret saying it? If you had to be asked that question now, would you mention feasts again?
AF: I would avoid them, 100%. But that’s hindsight. What’s said is said.
MLZ: In a way you’ve become the face of traffic. People love to blame it all on you. Does that bother you?
AF: Not really. Who else do you want them to blame? I’m the face of it now.
MLZ: During a cabinet meeting near the end of summer, Robert Abela told all of you ministers that half of you are underperforming. Do you feel you are one of the underperformers?
AF: Absolutely not.
MLZ: Don’t you feel you’re performing less than Ian Borg? During his time it felt like more projects were being completed.
AF: You can’t compare.
MLZ: Why not? You’re both ministers, from the same government, and you succeeded him.
AF: The challenges are different. The manifesto he was trusted with is different to mine. And the times were different. He had the pandemic to deal with, and while I don’t have that, I need to deal with way more cars on the road. I believe I always delivered, and had it not been the case, Robert Abela would not have appointed me minister of such a strong and controversial portfolio.
Roadworks and road infrastructure
MLZ: You recently said Malta is still on track to fix all roads by 2024. In 2017, Joseph Muscat had promised he would fix all of Malta’s roads in seven years. That means by the end of next year. Will you still manage? Because many roads are still not done.
AF: Before Labour came to power, people would complain about the lack of roadworks. Nowadays the complaints have flipped. People feel there are too many roadworks going on. Some tell me we should stop, or at least slow down, and that’s what we’re doing. We will first finish off the ongoing projects before moving on to the next ones.
MLZ: So, this means you will not be able to deliver on Joseph Muscat’s promise to finish all roads by next year, right?
AF: The earmarked roads will be completed.
MLZ: But the promise wasn’t about earmarked roads, but all of Malta’s roads.
AF: Do you really believe Joseph Muscat was promising to dig up even the good roads?
We will build structures for industry and recreational spaces on reclaimed land- Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia
MLZ: No, but many roads still need fixing. Will you manage by the end of the seventh year?
AF: Yes, and with a few breaks in between projects.
MLZ: And still manage by the end of next year?
MLZ: How many flyovers and underpasses does Malta still need until we can say we’re done?
AF: This is the plan: The Mrieħel underpass has just been completed and the airport project will be finished by April. We will then begin works on a junction in St Andrew’s, another junction at Tal-Barrani and the Msida Creek. Those are the major infrastructural projects the country needs right now.
MLZ: And then we can stop?
AF: No. There is another very important project, for instance, at Tal-Imgħallaq which connects Qormi to Marsa. We must find a way to complete that as well.
MLZ: If you plan to reduce cars from the roads, why do you continue to add flyovers and widen roads?
AF: Because our road network still has several bottlenecks that need to be addressed.
MLZ: What about land reclamation? Is it actually happening? Where, and how, and what will we build on the reclaimed land?
AF: We have two similar studies – one conducted under Lawrence Gonzi’s administration and the other under a Labour government. Both have earmarked similar locations, such as Qalet Marku and Bengħajsa.
MLZ: What will be built on the reclaimed land? Apartment blocks?
AF: Definitely not. We will build structures for industry and recreational spaces, where our children can enjoy the environment.
MLZ: Onto a different subject. There seems to be an apparent culture of corruption at Transport Malta. Several driving test examiners have testified in court saying they were ordered to let certain students pass following instructions from this ministry or from Castille. Another examiner was caught on camera taking a bribe, and to top it all off, two enforcement officers were caught on camera assaulting a man on the ground.
MLZ: Of course it is, but your job is to ensure these incidents don’t happen, not just to condemn them when they happen.
AF: First of all, Transport Malta employs more than 850 people. Let’s say all of the workers that allegedly broke the rules amount to 20, does that mean all of the others are allegedly corrupt as well? We immediately suspended the handful of people who were allegedly abusing and introduced new systems through audits to ensure such abuses don’t happen again.
MLZ: Have you conducted any internal investigation to check if these abuses aren’t still happening now?
AF: Those officers who allegedly beat a man on the street are facing criminal charges in court. Meanwhile, I spoke to the rest of the officers and they told me they need more training.
MLZ: The man on the street was not beaten because the officers did not have enough training. You don’t need training to know that you shouldn’t beat anyone.
AF: You never know the reasons.
MLZ: There’s no reason to ever justify a beating.
AF: You’re misunderstanding me. We cannot ascertain for sure what caused that officer to assault the man. Of course, it’s wrong, but you cannot say that the other 120 officers are also bad people.
MLZ: And the driving test claims...
AF: Some officers are also facing legal procedures in court and are suspended. Together with the CEO of Transport Malta, we’re running audits in every department to ensure anything of the sort does not happen again.
MLZ: Are you convinced there are no people within Transport Malta being bribed right now?
AF: I can’t tell you that. Can you tell me for sure that there are none of your colleagues taking bribes right now?
MLZ: Are you 100% sure there isn’t anyone in your ministry ordering anyone at Transport Malta to unfairly allow students to pass their driving test?
AF: Of course, I’m sure. Anyone who wants to pass their driving test should do the test and pass like I did.
MLZ: Would you like to be prime minister?
AF: I’m not interested.
MLZ: Do you exclude it?
MLZ: What about another top position... say, European commissioner?
AF: If the opportunity comes around, we’ll discuss it. I don’t exclude anything. I’m open. But politics is not everything to me either. I see a life beyond politics.
MLZ: You were the only politician to ever out Matt Bonanno for being the man behind the satirical site Bis-Serjetà. Why did you do that?
AF: I called him the next morning and apologised. And he thanked me and appreciated my call a lot. I also had an issue with (former book council chairman) Mark Camilleri, whom I also called the next morning.
MLZ: Abortion. Do all Labour MPs really agree with the government’s abortion amendment?
AF: Of course.
MLZ: Really? Even behind closed doors?
AF: I’m not with everybody behind closed doors, but the amendment is the result of an internal discussion where everybody got to say what they felt.
MLZ: So, every single Labour MP is in favour of the amendment?
AF: As far as I’m concerned, yes.
The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
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