IAN BORG is one of the most admired and resented ministers of our time. In an interview with Mark Laurence Zammit, he talks about transport, road works and whether he aspires to be prime minister one day.
The budget announced free public transport for all. Is it just the buses? Are the ferries included?
It’s the buses, but that doesn’t mean we will rule out other means of transport, because our aim is to bring about a cultural shift. The government is taking on this challenge. Now we need people to muster the courage and start using it. People who take the bus will be saving €300 annually in fares. We will also ensure that the service is cleaner and more efficient by swapping our current buses to fully electric ones.
I asked you about the ferries because they are also a means of public transport.
Yes, they are, and people can already benefit from existing measures on those. Again, we’re open to discussion. I know you’re Gozitan and this concerns you, and it seems you liked the fast ferry so much that you want it for free as well! Yes, we’ll work on it!
No, it’s not like that. I just needed some clarification about what ‘public transport’ means. But there’s a problem with buses. People who take the bus will tell you they’re almost always full-up. What solution are you looking at? Will you add more buses to the fleet?
We will, if necessary. That is one of the logistical challenges we need to solve by October (2022). We don’t want people to start using free transport, only to find out all buses are already full-up.
That is already the case, though.
I can tell you it will be necessary to add more buses, so that is one of the things we will be discussing.
Do you have any idea how many buses you need to add?
We will discuss that with the operator. We have another challenge though. Bus use has dwindled due to COVID, and this happened all around the world. So we must restore confidence in the safety of the service.
Maltese people refuse to take the bus, not because it is expensive, but because we love our cars. Money does not appear to be the issue, so much so we’re willing to spend way more to buy and maintain a private car, so long as we are in a car. So you haven’t really solved anything by making it free of charge, because the problem was not the money in the first place.
Studies have shown us there are several people who will happily shift to public transport if it is provided for free. But I am aware many others won’t. That is why I have always reiterated that no single measure will solve all our public transport problems.
And that is why the budget did not only plan for roadworks and the construction of new junctions, but also incentivises people to go for smaller cars, motorcycles, bicycles and ferries. It’s a mix of many measures. We will be the second EU nation to provide free public transport for all.
But what do you plan on doing to get people out of their car and onto the bus? Because I have yet to hear a single proposal explaining how you’ll do that.
Firstly, we are doing this to reward those who already take the bus. We will give them their money back, because they truly contribute to ease traffic congestion. For the others who won’t be convinced by the free service, we need to improve efficiency.
We need to make sure buses are not full-up and that they pick you up and take you where you need to go on time. We also need to improve infrastructure specifically for buses to avoid traffic.
A Malta metro?
Are you going to start the process to build the metro? Is it one of those election promises?
This is not something that Ian Borg or Robert Abela will build. We need to discuss this as a country. We paid professional people good money to draw up a study about its feasibility, and I published all of it – 301 pages.
I’m not saying the study is flawed. The idea is very good. I’m just not convinced you’ll build it. Don’t tell me that it doesn’t depend on you or Robert Abela, because you’ll probably win the general election and you’ll probably be minister again, so yes, you two would kickstart the project.
I will retain the post of minister as long as the people and the prime minister want me to retain it. If I’m still here, I’ll be listening to the discussion, and I, and likewise the Labour Party, will have no problem taking decisions on the metro, like we did on the Malta-Gozo tunnel. People wanted it, they voted for it and we’ve issued a tender.
We’re not sure whether people really want the tunnel. Surveys show otherwise.
The surveys commissioned by the authorities I am responsible for show that people are in favour of permanent connectivity. And whoever voted for PL and PNPD in 2017 voted on manifestos which also promised construction of the tunnel.
But what do you expect people to do if they don’t agree with the tunnel? Did you expect them to not vote at all? People are required to vote on an entire manifesto.
Yes, but that’s democracy, what can I tell you? Let’s go back to the metro. The metro report is a study conducted by professionals. It’s not what I, or the prime minister want. It was what they thought was best. And I want people to discuss that.
I’m not saying we don’t want it. My question is: will you build it? Because I fear it’s just an election promise. And Finance Minister Clyde Caruana barely mentioned it in the budget speech. How was one of the largest infrastructural projects of all time overlooked in the budget?
Clyde Caruana said precisely what I’m saying here. We need to carry on the metro discussion. Did you expect him to pencil in €6 billion in this week’s budget and announce construction? There are a number of upcoming geological and environmental studies which still have to be done, and for which we are trying to secure funds from the EU.
I think it’s an election promise because the report you published proposes that works start in 2019.
There are complex reports that have many drafts. They may have sent us drafts in 2017, 2018 or 2019, but a lot has changed since those drafts. I received the final version a few weeks ago.
But why would the final version say that project management can begin in 2019 and design in 2021? The final version should have at least corrected those dates. The report must have been ready for some time if they’re suggesting the project begins three years ago.
Those are the timelines the experts suggested. I received the final version a few weeks ago, I tabled it in cabinet and we published it so it would be up for discussion.
There’s also an archaeological problem. Do you have a plan for that? Because heaven knows what you’ll find when you start digging.
The metro lines run 30 metres beneath the surface of the road, while the stations are constructed all the way up to the surface. So, the stations will be the biggest archaeological challenge. That is why this €6.2 billion report includes a 45% contingency budget, specifically because a lot of these factors are yet unknown. There are a lot of things we must discuss, but let’s not politicise this.
The PN said we copied their idea but it’s positive. I won’t even go into whether we copied them or not. I’m happy they’re on board. ADPD suggested that parts of it should perhaps run underground and other parts overground. That’s good, let’s keep discussing.
What if people and experts come to the conclusion that it would be better off above the ground? Good. Let’s discuss it, I want us to have this discussion, so we’re able to achieve the best possible results. We need to discuss urgently.
Look at these [Marsa] flyovers. Do you see those cars? Even though this project has just been opened, if we don’t go further and start shifting away from private vehicles, the entire project will fail in 20 years.
That project is good for now, but it will fail if we don’t get people to use other means of public transport. I will probably have retired from politics by then, but maybe I’ll be alive, and if I am, I don’t want to witness that failure. That’s why we’re kicking off discussions such as the one about the metro.
It’s good to see measures proposed to get cars off the roads. But why do you keep widening roads? Isn’t that contradictory?
No, it’s not. The metro takes 25 years to build. In the meantime, we cannot spend all those years stuck in traffic. I remember being stuck in standstill traffic for half an hour between Rabat and Attard before we built the central link. And the infrastructure works are not simply the big roads and junctions. It’s also the small residential streets where people live. We have completed 709 of those so far, and there’s more to go.
The truth is that traffic hasn’t subsided. People still get stuck in traffic all the time, even on the new roads, even here, on the Marsa junction.
I’ll let people judge whether the investment in infrastructure was needed...
I’m not saying it wasn’t needed, I’m saying it was needed, yet it hasn’t solved the problem.
That is why we are working on intensifying a number of other measures, including the ones we already spoke about, to ease the challenge. Rest assured, I won’t tell you that it’s a perception.
Because it isn’t.
I get stuck in traffic as well.
Don’t you worry that despite all the road works, we still face congestions?
The thing is, if I let the roads be, I’m criticised, if I widen them I’m criticised as well. I’m just pleased that we’re working to modernise our road network, all the while making it safer, because that’s another thing. I couldn’t accept more road fatalities on the Mġarr road, for example. Some eight people have already died there.
Some roads works, such as the one in Mġarr have been going on for too long. This week someone told me some students who attend schools in that area missed their first lessons due to traffic.
But you must mention everything. I remember people stuck in traffic all the way from Buqana. I remember people stuck in Mosta or on the way to Attard. Not anymore. In Mġarr there is a narrow road which most people use to drive their children to school, and that project will be completed in a few weeks.
Let’s talk trees. You uprooted huge, old trees and replaced them with small, skinny ones. I get that you planted a lot of trees, but right now we need big trees to absorb carbon dioxide.
We have relocated the trees we could. Right here where we are, there were two big trees which we could relocate, and they’re still here, full of life, look at them. Other trees, like Aleppo pines, won’t survive if you relocate them.
So you destroyed them.
Oh come on... destroyed them... that’s not the point. It’s about taking decisions.
Yes, you took the decision to destroy them.
Look at those big trees over there. Those are new and previously inexistent. Infrastructure Malta holds the all-time record for planting the most trees in the history of this country. It planted tens of thousands of trees.
Why do you want a marina (in Marsascala)?
Wait, it’s not that I want it. It won’t make a difference to me personally.
I mean, you think it’s a good idea.
It’s not about an idea. It’s an issue of necessity. We have an increasing number of people who are registering boats. They are not allowed to park their boats on land and in the water, all spaces are currently occupied. What would you do?
The 2006 local plan permits you to build another marina in Xemxija or Marsascala, and you may decide to go with that option. Alternatively, you’ll need to allow people to bring their boats overland or else prohibit new boat registrations all along. I put forward the three possibilities and the transport authority has issued a call for proposals.
When they’re in, we’ll evaluate them and decide. We may decide to do nothing in the end, but there’s always a price to pay. As a resident of the area, the prime minister was clear. He said we must safeguard swimming zones, organise boat spaces and create a breakwater to prevent seawater from flooding the area during storms.
But residents seem to be opposing it.
You’ll always have those who want it and those who don’t. Most importantly, it depends on how you actually do it. I believe the prime minister is envisioning quite a positive balance.
There’s a lot of concern around business people who cosy up to politicians to ask for favours. In some cases they even make hefty donations to the party expecting preferential treatment in return.
Do business people come to you for favours? When they do, what do you tell them?
I have never promised anything to anyone, business people or otherwise.
But what do you tell them when they come to you?
It’s not only businessmen. People come from all walks of life. Some want a government job. I direct them to the legitimate process. If they’re registering with Jobs Plus I’ll tell them they will be notified of jobs suitable for them, and if they’re already employed I convince them that that’s the career they have already chosen. People from the media come as well. Sometimes people in business come.
But let’s talk about the people in business.
I am minister for transport and infrastructure, and I often have meetings with people who are doing infrastructure work for the government, and God forbid those meetings cease to exist. I meet with those who need the road, with those who need to build the road and with those who work in that sector. Meetings take various forms.
You also meet with the people who are planning to develop projects on the sides of those roads.
I was once the minister responsible for planning, and we did have official project presentations back then. It’s been two years since I held that office and I presume it has always been like that and always will be.
Anyone who wishes to propose a project or initiative will speak to the government, the opposition, the media. It will always be like that. That’s part of public life, and not just of a politicians’ life. I never granted anyone anything that wasn’t rightfully and lawfully theirs.
Do you aspire to be prime minister one day?
I had that opportunity two years ago and I was encouraged to consider the bid. But I passed on it because I believed there were others who could lead the country better than me. I have a very good working relationship with the prime minister. He has been at the helm of the party for two years and he has many more to go.
You haven’t answered me, though. I asked you whether you would be interested in the future.
I don’t think anyone can foresee the future and I don’t think the opportunity will come either.
So you don’t exclude it.
I’m telling you that when the opportunity came, I passed.