Raising the heat on the road

A protest against the Central Link project is planned for this Sunday. The anger at the government’s mindless obliteration of the country’s natural and cultural heritage is spreading.

Farmers are also protesting. The government is offering deals to compensate for the fields to be sacrificed for the project, but this ignores the fact that farmers often have a special bond with the land which they work. Their lobby group Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi has explained that this is also an emotional matter.

For many others, destroying trees and the traditional landscape is also an emotional issue.

Just to recap, Central Link is a huge road widening project between Rabat and Mrieħel, aiming to alleviate traffic congestion. Hundreds of trees will be uprooted and almost 50,000 square metres of unbuilt land will be destroyed, including arable fields, traditional rubble walls and cisterns.

The scale of this growing discontent reminds me of the mood in around 2006. One environmental protest after another had led to a shift in gear at the government end. By 2008, moves were afoot to reform the Planning Authority.

New planning legislation was then introduced and the PA had begun to close the taps. The Nationalist Party’s fall from favour with the electorate in 2013 has even partly been blamed on this tightening up, annoying both big contractors and smaller developers who were not getting their way.

2006 is also the year which the government keeps mentioning to justify this latest Central Link monstrosity. A plan to build a bypass was in the pipeline in 2006, intended to alleviate the same bottleneck at Attard. But the government of the time had shelved it. It is not relevant now.

In 2006, the government had sensed that it had to pay attention to the growing climate of discontent against over development.

Protesters, if you shout loud enough the government will hear you in the end. But it must feel the heat, otherwise, money shouts louder.

In less than 24 hours, NGOs and residents battling the Central Link project have already managed to raise €20,000 in support of their campaign. They intend to appeal against the permit at the Environment and Planning Tribunal.

This is a good effort, but it is a shame that civil society must still struggle so hard to raise environmental awareness in the minds of the government and its minions. If NGOs and residents had not had the stamina and determination to take the DB project at St George’s Bay to court, for example, the Planning Authority would have just carried on as usual.

The court’s ruling, pointing out a conflict of interest on the DB Group permit, seems to have pressed some buttons. Three members of the Planning Boards resigned this week, reportedly after Minister Ian Borg sent round a letter reminding them of the issue of conflict of interest.

If these three resignations had anything to do with such a letter, what were these people doing at the Planning Authority in the first place? Did they not care about conflicts of interest before it was pointed out by the court?

The Prime Minister has stated that the Attard road in question has 30,000 users per day. But road widening can only be a short term solution. The National Statistics Office has just issued its annual report on transport. In 2017, the stock of licensed motor vehicles increased at an average net rate of 36 vehicles per day, of which 78.4 % were passenger cars.

At the end of 2017, the number of licensed vehicles in Malta was 372,061. In 2007 the number was 287,120. That is an increase of close to 85,000 cars on the roads over 10 years. No wonder there is a problem on the roads.

The same report shows that air emissions in Malta have worsened. In 2017, total CO2 equivalent emissions increased by 11.9% from 2010 levels. This is not due to the fact that the roads are not wide enough. There are simply too many cars on the road and public transport is inadequate.

It was once assumed that the old buses were a major cause of air pollution. When the buses were changed in 2011 there was a general expectation, realistic or not, that air quality would improve.

But the traffic is now so extreme that I doubt whether anyone would have such expectations. The volume on the roads is too big to lay the problem at the door of any one type of vehicle.

Yet the government is offering no vision for public transport. Instead of destroying the place with horrendous, soulless mega roads, it should invest in solutions which will reduce traffic in the first place.

The proposed tunnel to Gozo is a product of the same mentality. Unless it is designed for an underground metro it will just export Malta’s traffic jams to Gozo, until the Central Link project is duplicated there too.

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