It is an undisputed fact that the island is facing serious mobility problems caused by more cars on the cluttered roads. Many point out that this is the result of new affluence, not helped by an influx of foreign labour and galloping tourism.
As the saying goes, motorists are the first to suffer the inconvenience of an increased vehicular presence which is making commuting a daily nightmare. This is no exaggeration. Just reflect on the studies that indicate commuters waste at least 30 minutes a day being held up in traffic. Nobody can, in reality, dispute the fact that the nation’s productivity trajectory depends on having an efficient road infrastructure.
During a recent televised debate between the two main political leaders, Joseph Muscat said that the government plans to alleviate the problem by making public transport free for everyone. Certainly, the Opposition sees red when asked about recent measures by the government regarding a massive €750 million plan to build new roads and extensively widen existing ones.
The Opposition disagrees with this policy, saying it is a step in the wrong direction. It maintains that it would not solve the problem and unceremoniously labels it as a short-term palliative.
In our hectic life, few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the reflection of acquired affluence by workers who are finding good jobs and have a higher propensity to spend money on entertainment, food, mobile telephony and overseas holidays.
Certainly, cheap bank loans also help drivers to buy another imported car. As can be expected in the current political race to elect candidates for MEP and Local Council elections, the Opposition disagrees. It laments the fact that the perceived affluence is paper thin and wealth distribution is not equitable.
A PN spokesman conjures up a vision of poverty traps hidden behind the lure of statistics. They fear that improvements in economic growth are not percolating down to the grassroots level and that the working poor hypothesis has crept in.
The government has hit back by saying it has increased the minimum wage by 25 percent over the past five years. Is this another conspiracy theory that blames the inefficiency of the rally in the economy and its failure to percolate tangible benefits to the lower income echelons of society?
Perhaps the mystery can be solved once the Central Bank issues a scientific report on the effectiveness of the so-called trickle-down economy. It is a dichotomy that, while the economy is racing ahead and firing on all cylinders (public debt is down to 46 per cent of GDP), there still loom fundamental problems relating to mobility and a groundswell of increased CO2 emissions.
This dilemma has been the focus of both political parties who each extol their heartfelt wishes to resolve the problem.
It was no surprise that a mass public transportation system was a feature of the last election campaign, with Labour and the PN pledging to carry out studies on how best to resolve the issue. In the latest TV debate, both political leaders prophesied that their ideas are functional, and expected to revolutionise mass transit, infusing a cataclysmic change.
For example, commuters in Gozo prefer a metro system linking strategic points like Valletta, the University and Mater Dei Hospital, a master structure leading to a tunnel.
Dr Franco Mercieca (a former Parliamentary Secretary in government) responsible for chairing the committee piloting the tunnel project disagrees, saying that a metro could pose certain environmental problems such as its impact on areas where it would be above-ground. Since 2013, one can remember various sound bites from lobbyists proposing the construction of a monorail system.
This involves adding both above ground and underground lines running north-south and west-east, intersecting at key traffic junctions and feeding at its various stops into other above-ground public transport systems.
Previous studies estimated the cost of the 70km service line would reach €1.42 billion more than seven years’ worth in cohesion funds, not a small ticket for a tiny economy with an annual GDP of €13 billion.
The government, while keeping its cards close to its chest, contends that studies indicate a metro system would only be sustainable with a higher population, otherwise the fare would need to be subsidised out of increased taxation.
In the monorail sphere, many systems are popular such as the Maglev model (see picture) which uses an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel and guide a vehicle over a guide-way.
Press comments reveal that detailed studies are being carried out by Arup, a London-based engineering and consultancy firm. Another opportunity is the hybrid system of buses and rail proposed by Bjorn Bonello, a planning consultant. Whichever model is chosen, one has to make certain that stations are located close to residential areas, otherwise no one will use them.
The million-dollar question is who will foot the bill. Perhaps the answer is in the air when one contemplates the financial assistance that China is reputed to offer. This package is part of its policy to help countries which sign up to the initiative namely the “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR).
Historically, one recalls how – in earlier centuries – trade flourished under the name ‘the Silk Road’, a network of trade routes that linked China to Central Asia and the Arab world. Billions of dollars have been invested by China since its One Belt, One Road initiative was launched in 2013 assisting over 60 countries in a range of infrastructure projects including railways, bridges, roads and ports.
It was no coincidence that a visit to China by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat saw the signing of a Memorandum of Undertaking. This was a renewal of a previous one signed five years ago and encapsulates the wishes of China in its unique policy to trade and expand business opportunities with other countries.
The Economist reported how recently Italy’s government launched a ‘Task Force China’ to develop a national strategy to boost economic and trade relations with China and guarantee itself a “position of leadership in Europe”. This initiative is expected to increase exports from Italy to Asia and attract much-needed inward investment. Malta may also benefit, if it boldly embarks on this ambitious roadmap to attract Chinese investment in a country-wide mass transit infrastructure. Fortune favours the bold, so can we grasp the opportunity?