Maltatoday, 11th June 2008, by James Debono
The development of 900 new apartments in the former Mistra Village complex will increase the flow of cars through one of Malta’s tightest traffic bottlenecks, and make the development of a tunnel passing right through the protected Mizieb aquifer beneath l-Imbordin, inevitable.
The controversial TEN-T Xemxija bypass may become a reality, as predicted by the traffic impact assessment for the Gemxija development, a project by Kuwaiti developers Al Massaleh and Maltese contractors JPM Brothers.
The assessment said the bypass “will definitely become a top priority”.
The TEN-T, the Trans-European Transport Network, is an EU-wide project expected to reach 89,500km of roads by 2020. Critics say the project risks affecting Natura 2000 sites of scientific importance.
On Thursday, MEPA issued an outline permit for the massive boomerang-shaped structure that will tower to a maximum 11 floors to replace the previously low-lying Mistra Village, ignoring NGO Din l-Art Helwa’s concerns on the project’s negative visual impact.
But apart from the visual impact, the project is set to pave the way for major road development, because the Gemxija project will generate so much traffic as to make Xemxija Hill, already under pressure from traffic to and from Gozo, literally unable to sustain the additional pressure.
The controversial Imbordin road, part of the TEN-T network, is being proposed as a solution to the Xemxija bottleneck.
But amid major environmental concerns, the road was not even considered as one of the Transport Authority’s priority projects for the period 2007-2013.
Last Thursday’s MEPA board decision however could force the government to speed up the process for the new road’s approval.
The Imbordin road comprises of a 545-metre tunnel that will pass under Xaghra ta’ l-Ghansar. It was proposed as an alternative to the Manikata road network, which was shot down in 2006 after protests from farmers in the area.
Former roads minister Jesmond Mugliett had described the new bypass as “a very tricky issue”, acknowledging that the alternative route posed a risk to the Mizieb aquifer, protected by European laws but already endangered by the illegal extraction of water.
The new road network would surely alleviate the traffic choking Xemxija hill: the main artery linking Malta to Mellieha and Gozo which takes 23,000 cars every day.
But the tunnel treads on the easternmost edge of a drinking water protection zone, which is protected by EU legislation.
The proposed road will partly utilise an already established route, starting from Triq Ghajn Tuffieha to Xemxija road, to Mizieb across the Pwales Valley, close to the agricultural areas of Ta’ Gannaru and l-Imbordin. It then connects to a 545m tunnel, under the Xaghra ta’ L-Ghansar ridge, and a small flyover bridge up to the existing Mellieha road.
But the new project raises concerns about the ecological impact on a scheduled area which serves as a buffer zone to the Simar reserve. In January, MEPA scheduled Simar, which includes parts of Pwales, Simar, l-Imbordin, Ta’ Gannaru, ix-Xaghra ta’ l-Ghansar and Ta’ Rkuplu.
The impact assessment for the Gemxija project says the roundabout atop Xemxija Hill is already straining to cope with the existing flow of traffic and recommends an alternative route to Mellieha that can bypass Xemxija Hill, and to be implemented within “a realistic timeframe”.
This prompts the question: why was the Gemxija project not put on hold until the authorities take a decision on the controversial traffic plans for the area?
The report acknowledges that: “in the absence of an alternative bypass, in order to alleviate the strain on the existing transportation route, the draconian measure would be to halt all development in Xemxija and Mellieha altogether.”
But the report dismisses this environmentally friendly option as “not viable” and proposes to “speed up the provision of alternative transportation routes”. So what will happen if the new bypass violates EU laws protecting Malta’s aquifers?