by Petra Caruana Dingli

Last week I was caught in traffic on my way to an evening event in Valletta. There were road closures for the Msida festa. Every morning, cars are stuck in roads around San Ġwann. At Paola, delays have worsened again. So, what’s new?

Road congestion keeps growing and nobody seems able to tackle it. The Transport Minister is unconvincing. On Saturday morning the Prime Minister was interviewed on the radio by Andrew Azzopardi, and quizzed for solutions. Not just talk, but timely and efficient measures.

One current idea is a monorail, essentially a train on elevated rail tracks. Joseph Muscat said this is possible, but that people would end up with a train running just outside their windows. In other words, a monorail is not likely be taken forward.

Keeping voters happy is important in the world of traffic solutions. Muscat explained that a consideration in going ahead with the Kappara flyover was the time it will take to complete. No government wants frustrated drivers at election time.

Elections come every five years, so long-term plans tend to fall off the drawing board. Just look at the gas-fired power station. It was meant to be up and running within two years. Three and a half years later, it is nowhere in sight.

Muscat is travelling to Singapore, with buddies Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, for the completion of the gas storage ship for the new power station. This large vessel is due to set sail for Malta. I don’t think the residents of Marsaxlokk will stand on the docks and cheer as it enters the harbour.

The ship will be filled with liquid gas. Doubts were raised about the risk assessments that were presented. Moreover, no study has yet been published showing how the ship’s presence will affect maritime traffic in the harbour – including fishing boats, leisure craft and Freeport vessels.

Do we really need this gas ship, and can’t we wait until a gas pipeline is installed? This will take a few years longer, but what is the rush? The electricity supply seems fine for the time being. Prices might be cheaper from the interconnector.

On the radio, Muscat said that one way to reduce road congestion is to raise car licence fees, with which he disagrees. He used Singapore as an example, explaining that there are no traffic jams because car ownership is restricted by high prices and quotas. People use public transport.

Muscat is against the Singapore solution because it is too authoritarian. To that I would add that while it is desirable to reduce cars, you cannot leave people stranded unless you offer plausible and efficient alternative transport.

The government is promoting Singapore as a model for Malta. I assume this means its success as a regional hub in various sectors, yet the Singapore model also means high-rise living. Accordingly, the government is promoting high-rise development in areas like Sliema, Qawra, Paceville and Mrieħel.

Unlike Singapore, no accompanying traffic solutions are on offer. This means in­creased urban density and congestion, without solutions for the general traffic mayhem.

The president of the Chamber of Architects has warned of the growing ‘Montebello syndrome’ in large-scale projects, fuelled by unsustainable greed, short-term goals and self-serving interests. He says we have no idea how these will impact our infrastructure and societies, or how they will work with each other. In his words: “The failure of a large-scale project has the potential to damage a whole community, its economy and its social structure”.

The Finance Minister, Edward Scicluna, has derided the ‘supermarket mentality’ in the construction industry, pointing at a lack of information on high-rise buildings and the role of the Planning Authority.

Environment Minister Jose Herrera said in a Times of Malta interview that he is “totally against” Malta becoming like Singapore. He said: “I admire the country. I like going there for five days, but I wouldn’t be buried there.”

His predecessor, Leo Brincat, had sounded a different tune, describing his “awe and admiration” for the achievements of Singapore and its attractive lifestyle, largely pollution-free, and its urban green spaces.

A high-rise city must carefully manage road congestion, with so many people crammed into a small area. Following a model like Singapore depends on all its elements, and not cherry-picking.

This Thursday, the Planning Authority will discuss two major high-rise projects, at Mrieħel and at Tigné in Sliema. It has now been revealed that its high-rise policy was introduced in an irregular manner in 2014, which speaks volumes about the authority’s current mindset. Environmental NGOs and residents are outraged, and have even resorted to the law courts in desperation.

High-rise development will have such a wide-ranging effect on current lifestyles and the country’s future that it probably qualifies for a national referendum. A recent survey in Maltatoday indicated that many people do not favour a high-rise landscape.

One thing is certain. The Planning Authority would be hugely irresponsible to issue more permits for high-rise buildings without better roads, traffic management and public transport.

Residents are clamouring for master plans on traffic and infrastructure. Yet the Planning Authority is steaming ahead, imagining it will encourage business and employment by choking the nation in the fumes of traffic and construction.

31 July 2016