Last Updated on Thursday, 4 February, 2021 at 10:09 am by Andre Camilleri
George M Mangion is a partner in PKFMalta, an audit and business advisory firm
During a recent interview with the president Dr George Vella at the launch of the Malta Sustainability Forum, his Excellency said that transport is one of the biggest contributors to pollution, and while we discuss having more electric cars, we should also start thinking about other methods of transportation.
The President has many times expressed the view that the monorail system would be effective for Malta and would result in fewer cars on the road. Asked about his views regarding car emissions on the roads, he was unequivocal that the high density of cars contributes to pollution. In his opinion, now is the time to think about new methods of transportation, where he mentioned the monorail system. The excitement of having alternative and safe means of mass public transport seems to be gaining traction of late. Many reporters uttered sound bites by “climate change” lobbyists proposing the construction of the monorail system. This, in theory involves adding both overground 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 means.
Previous studies in 2014 showed that the cost of a modest 70km service line will reach €1.42bn (less than seven years worth of EU cohesion funds). Not a small ticket for a tiny economy with a mere €12.5bn annual GDP. Government, while keeping its cards close to its chest, contends that studies indicate a monorail system is only sustainable with a higher population otherwise the fare needs to be subsidized out of increased taxation. In choosing a monorail solution, many systems are popular such as the Maglev model. The latter deploys an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel and silently guide a vehicle over a guide-way. Another option 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 few will use them. The million-dollar question is who will foot the bill? One may question if the island can afford such a high investment when the stock of ageist cars will soon have to be replaced by electric vehicles.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic and the need of social distancing the popularity of public transport was high while recently hail-ride car services are also becoming popular. Still in 2019, statistics disclosed that the rate of new vehicles was at a high rate of 45 a day while the number of licensed vehicles stood at almost 400,000. Equally important is the fact that many of us do not walk as people in other countries do, if only we provide more harbour ferries, these will only relieve the congestion if people walked to them rather than driving and expecting to find a parking space nearby. Much has been written about the frustration and inconvenience caused by our gridlocked system but the dangerous levels of pollution must receive equal attention because it is contributing to the early death of many of our citizens.
The good news is that within a short span of three years, all of the seven flyovers of the Marsa Junction Project are now open to road users. The €70m project is being heralded by government as “facilitating direct, uninterrupted connections between the major routes converging at the busiest intersection of the South-bound road network. Time will tell if the new structure does eventually reduce travel time and the carbon footprint. In our hectic life, few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the reflection of acquired affluence by workers. Moreover, cheap bank loans also further encourage drivers to buy another imported car. The roll-out of electric vehicles this year is impressive and one finds various models on the market, yet they are still expensive. Some complain that unless you own a garage, charging your electric vehicle is near impossible. This is a fair comment given an increasing number of families are living in flats. Regarding installation of PV panels on roof tops, this had started in earnest yet Malta only generates 8% from such clean energy source (average EU – 34%).
It is a dichotomy that while the economy is crippled by the pandemic and not firing on all cylinders (public debt is up from 47% to 63% of GDP) yet there are still a number of observers (mainly from the medical profession) who prescribe a curfew and a partial lockdown as the only cure to stem galloping infections. The prime minister disagrees, rebutting that the Covid-19 situation is under control. Perhaps the silver lining is that due to a 75% drop in tourist arrivals, we are enjoying cleaner air due to reduced car emissions.