United we stand

Source: The Malta Independent Article published on 25 September 2011
by George M. Mangion

So is the current hype about building an underground road tunnel a ruse or perhaps a pipe dream of some politicians? Do the islanders support such a link? A negative answer can be found in Roamer’s column (an anonymous writer/s in The Sunday Times of Malta). In a header entitled “Linking Gozo – hope not”¸ the ghost writer is against the project¸ saying inter alia that the exclusive charm of Gozo has to do with getting there by boat or sea-plane and this will be forfeited. In Roamer’s words¸ perhaps only underwater rats are ordained to burrow underground and enjoy the experience but not Gozitans! Such an underground trip misses out on the aesthetics provided by the profile of an island that has charmed travellers¸ both local and foreign¸ since time immemorial.

Again¸ with the memories of the earthquake disaster in Japan¸ one may well ask what are the inherent risks with building such an underground connection. According to Prof. Eivind Grøv (chief scientist with Norwegian firm Sintef Building and Infrastructure)¸ data collected from Iceland and Japan shows that during an earthquake it is safer to be underground. Apart from safety¸ there are more advantages to be reaped by building such a tunnel. He opines that an underground tunnel has three major advantages over a bridge or a causeway: it will not be an obstruction to sea traffic; it is an all-weather permanent link and incurs lower maintenance costs. Prof. Grøv opines that Gozo could see an immediate increase of between 10 and 20 per cent in traffic flow¸ which could continue to increase gradually in subsequent years. Naturally¸ more traffic equates more business opportunities but it might also kill the serenity so much loved by romantics such as Roamer. Yes¸ it is always a trade-off but parliamentary secretary Dr Said thinks that Gozo is consistently struggling to retain its human resources¸ as relatively few young people who pursue and graduate from tertiary education rarely remain in Gozo due to scant professional opportunities. Dr Said attributes this perpetual brain-drain to “successes achieved in the education sphere”¸ adding that over 1¸000 Gozitans are currently reading for a degree at the University of Malta or following tertiary education in Malta. But is the tunnel feasible? The answer will be given shortly when a professional study is completed this year.

Dr Said said that “it all boils down to sustainable development”¸ pointing out that increased business opportunities may lead to higher investment in tourism¸ industry and also upmarket agri-tourism. In the short term¸ this would follow in a more sustainable use of the island’s natural beauty without impinging in any way on its rustic character. But why not continue to expand the present ferry service provided by Gozo Channel? The answer is that the ferry services should not be the exclusive link to both islands. It does not come at a cheap price either. Suffice to say that the ferry provides the night service and reduced rates to Gozitans and Maltese senior citizens¸ thanks to the annual government contribution of €4.5 million as part of the public service obligation. Therefore a viable alternative to the ferry will definitely enhance commuter choice. This is partly reflected in the comparatively low turnout of tourists to t