The Central Link road widening project is “pro-environment” and those objecting to it are in a distinct minority, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg insisted on Monday morning.
“Some of the trees which protesters tied themselves to will not be touched,” the minister told reporters.
"This is a project the country has been planned for decades. I have the utmost respect for those who took time to protest. But it is clear that we need to continue explaining [the project’s] benefits. I believe this is a pro-environment project."
He shot down suggestions that the plans might be revised further, telling journalists they had already been revised and existing ones had been approved by the Planning Authority.
Dr Borg was speaking one day after around 1,000 people marched against the project in Attard. Some tied themselves to trees in protest at plans to cut down more than 500 trees to widen a main road between Rabat and Mrieħel.
Authorities say the widened road will cut travel times and lead to reduced emissions, and Dr Borg made that point again on Monday.
“If you spend 20 minutes with your car engine on to cross Attard, that causes more pollution,” he said.
An Environmental Impact Assessment for the project found that emissions will be reduced when compared to future projections once the road is widened, although emissions will not decline in absolute terms.
Dr Borg emphasised broad public support for project, saying 85 per cent of those surveyed said they were in favour of the Central Link project.
A Social Impact Assessment found that when support for the project is averaged out across geographical regions, 70 per cent were broadly in favour of the project.
It was largely based on a scientific survey which was representative of the entire population, and drew data from more than 400 telephone interviews using a stratified sample.
Times of Malta has run polls on the issue both online and on social media. While the results are not scientific, they suggest a different picture.
Of the 6000 people who took part online, more than 70 per cent said they did not agree with the project either because it was not needed or because it harmed nature. Almost 30 per cent of those who voted said they did agree with the project.
Separately, a Facebook poll that attracted 8,800 votes found that 59 per cent of respondents opposed the Central Link.
The minister, who is from Dingli and lives in Rabat, drew on a personal anecdote as he defended his ministry’s plans.
“I go up and down that road three or four times a day,” he said. “I’ve seen trees die and others uprooted there. Nobody ever replaced them. We’re going to replace them”.