Imagine having a tunnel at least 100 metres underneath the seabed in the Gozo Channel, which is already at an average depth of 30 metres. It would have such a steep incline both in and out that it would be a safety hazard if done over the strict limits of the Gozo Channel, which is just 4.8km at its narrowest, from Ċirkewwa to Mġarr, Gozo.

Which is why the proposed ‘project of the century’ would need to extend back from the Gozo Channel proper, at both ends. Three kilometres on the Gozo side, as far as Ta’ Xħajma, limits of Nadur (near the horseracing track). And 9km on the Malta side, to a place called L-Imbordin. Hence, a 13km tunnel to ford a 4.8km strait: the tunnel will run under land more than it will run under the seabed.

This decision, dictated by transport engineering, merits some reflection. The localities that are slated to host the tunnel’s entrance and exit points will attract considerable attention, as the feasibility studies progress. Environmentalists are already building a slate of arguments to protest this development, and including what to do with the one million cubic metres of excavated rock that are collateral to the digging. 

We should also shift our attention to the localities that will lose out from the traffic rerouting. Mġarr in Gozo would witness a heavy reduction of through traffic; as would Mellieħa in Malta. No more steady business from travellers crossing from one island to the other in these two localities.

Unless, that is, Gozo Channel Co Ltd. continues its ferry operations, even with the tunnel in place. These would arguably be less frequent and more expensive than the current offerings, but would continue to suggest a more scenic crossing to the sister island. Should that be the case, then Gozo Channel needs to plan ahead to replace its ageing fleet.

Should the tunnel start from the Imbordin environs, then motorists would avoid having to negotiate Xemxija Hill, the Mistra Bridge, Selmun Hill, the Ta’ Pennellu Mellieħa Bypass, Għadira Bay, l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa and Marfa, before reaching the current Ċirkewwa ferry terminal. All a series of meandering curves and ups and downs, some on narrow roads.

Will the Gozo-Malta tunnel serve to appease private vehicle drivers, or provide the justification to launch an underground metro network?

It’s a 12km stretch that Google Maps tells me takes about 18 minutes to drive, in normal conditions. To be replaced by a 9km straight lane. Assuming a speed limit of 50km/hr in the tunnel, that would take 11 minutes to drive.

That is seven additional minutes of travel time removed. Add to this the 47.5 minutes saved by replacing the ferry with the tunnel. This is worked out by adding the actual time it takes for the ferry to cross (which is 25 minutes), plus half the waiting time in normal conditions (which is 22.5 minutes). Instead, a 5km additional stretch of tunnel that should take six minutes to drive, and assuming a smooth flow of traffic. A net gain of almost 50 minutes.

Good news. But, especially for the Gozitans travelling to Malta, they are still at Imbordin when they exit the tunnel. I doubt whether many of them would consider this hamlet as their final destination. For most, they are still facing logjam on our beleaguered road network, to which we continue adding a net 1,000 vehicles a month. 

And no reprieve is in sight, as the local population continues to grow, and it is not just locals but also immigrants and foreign workers who want to own and drive their car around.

Hence the proposal to consider a longer-term plan, that of an underground mass rapid transit system that would not just connect Gozo to Malta, but Malta to itself as well. It could replace or take most of the pressure off public transport, which handled some 50 million passenger trips in 2018. It could offer a realistic, attractive, affordable, hassle free and punctual alternative to private automobility.

The government is sending mixed messages about transport use. It is widening arterial roads to improve vehicle flow; but then proceeding with specific local projects, such as St George’s Square, Valletta, Paola Square, and Grand Harbour ferries, where the idea is to reduce vehicular traffic (and parking).

Will the Gozo-Malta tunnel serve to appease private vehicle drivers; or provide the justification to launch an underground metro network?

We have hardly had any debate about whether or not to have a fixed link between Malta and Gozo. The tunnel link is happening. But we should at least discuss what kind of mobility we wish any tunnel to serve.

Godfrey Baldacchino is Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta and editor of the book Bridging Islands: The Impact of Fixed Links (2008).

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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