Editorial | Fast ferry service should not kill the Gozo tunnel

The onset of the fast ferry service was viewed with suspicion by some who believe this might be a precursor to shelving plans for a permanent tunnel linking Malta and Gozo


In the beginning of June, two companies started offering fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo, promising to deliver passengers between Mgarr and Valletta - and vice-versa - in under 45 minutes.

The news was welcomed by many Gozitans who found merit in travelling to Valletta and catching a bus or another ferry to their final destination. Many Maltese too appeared to appreciate the opportunity to reach Gozo quickly.

But the onset of the fast ferry service was viewed with suspicion by some who believe this might be a precursor to shelving plans for a permanent tunnel linking Malta and Gozo.

A number of times each year, stormy weather disrupts sea travel between the two islands, leaving many Gozitan workers and hospital patients stranded for the night.

This has often been the easiest argument to make in favour of a permanent link between both islands, though it is not the soundest.

Much as the disruption in service causes distress to many Gozitans, this is not a normal thing.

Complete disruption because of extreme weather conditions occurs on a handful of occasions throughout the year, which makes it hard to justify the expense to build a permanent connection on this basis alone.

However, what these storms do is highlight the precariousness of Gozo’s insularity.

Gozitans need the peace of mind that life can continue functioning as normal on their island. But not just. They also have a right to reliable travel infrastructure that their Maltese brethren enjoy.

From a Gozitan perspective, for many years sea travel meant waking up early to make the first ferry trip to Malta; and trying to wrap up meetings early, to get back to Gozo in a decent time.

This inconvenience may appear fickle to many Maltese but it is an economic and social disruptor for Gozitans and cannot be disregarded at the bat of an eyelid.

The introduction of the fast ferry service may go a long way towards addressing this criticism. Although, if the catamarans operated by both service providers will be able to work in heavy weather, the likes of which grounds the Gozo channel fleet a couple of times a year - has yet to be determined.

The construction of a permanent link will help remove the uncertainty, giving Gozitans a reliable travel option that does not depend on time schedules, weather and ship outages.

The proposed tunnel link will not come cheap – a price tag ranging between €300 million and €500 million has been floated.

Part of that cost is money that would have to be spent anyway to create a bypass for Xemxija as part of the Ten-T network. Plans first floated in 2006 for this bypass were abandoned and Xemxija Hill struggles to keep up with growing congestion.

The tunnel will hive off the traffic to and from Gozo off the Xemxija route, making it less likely to require a new road in the area.

Part of the cost can be recouped through increased economic activity in Gozo and the northern part of Malta, and a toll on non-Gozitan cars using the tunnel.

But there is a hint of unfairness in demanding that the Gozo-Malta tunnel should pay for itself. No such argument has ever been made for the Marsa Junction project, the Kappara Junction flyover, the Marsa-Hamrun bypass road widening, the Santa Venera tunnels, and all other major road projects.

It is taken as given that these road projects are necessary to ease traffic congestion and help contribute to improved economic activity.

The same holds for a permanent link between the two islands, which will also enable commercial activity in Gozo to diversify and create more jobs on the island.

But the tunnel link is not the be all and end all for Gozo.

For the island to flourish economically it needs to have a second and third fibre optic link to boost bandwidth – this has become more crucial now with the launch of the Gozo innovation hub. It needs to have a proper harbour in Mġarr that could take in more yachts and allow cruise liners to berth.

It needs to have a fully functional general hospital, which is why the government must press Steward Healthcare to get on with the project.

Gozo is getting its own reverse osmosis at Ħondoq ir-Rummien but government should seriously explore how the island could have limited capacity to produce its own electricity through clean technology.

All this will help make Gozo a contributor to nationwide economic progress and encourage young Gozitans to continue living in their birthplace.

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