Country In A Gridlock: What's The Plan For Malta's Bleak Traffic Scenario?

Martina Said - 22nd December 2017

Transport Minister Ian Borg, Opposition Transport Spokesperson Marthese Portelli and Malta Chamber Deputy President David Xuereb share their thoughts on Malta's traffic problems and the solutions that lie ahead.

Malta’s traffic congestion problem is a national concern and talking point that dominates many a conversation among those living and commuting here. The frustration is palpable – from hours stuck in a gridlock in what is typically a 15-minute drive to the subsequent annoyance caused by a lack of parking spaces all over the island, commuters are fed up, and often don’t feel safe turning to faster options, the likes of bicycles and scooters.

Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, Ian Borg, is in agreement that traffic in Malta is a challenge which needs to be overcome without delay. “The recent boom in our country’s economic development, the resulting increase in population and constantly-rising tourism figures is increasing the pressure on all our modes of travel, including road transport. This has not been helped by the years of haphazard development and a reluctance to rectify obsolete road designs, which have also taken their toll on our land transport infrastructure, causing unacceptable social, financial and environmental impacts.”

Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, Ian Borg

Focusing on laying down a 20-year project when the public needs solutions for daily commuting today is useless, the Minister says, which is why the island’s transport issues need to be addressed in different ways. “The Ministry has laid down a series of short-, medium- and long-term solutions. From my first days in office, we immediately started working on tackling bottlenecks that are reducing the efficiency of our country’s major road network nodes, especially at peak hours. We have already completed projects at the busy Lija junction and the critical roundabout outside the Malta International Airport. We implemented 25 projects within the first 100 days of this legislature, and are continuing with several other projects as we speak. By the end of 2017, we would have invested a total of €13 million in the upgrading of our road network.”

Last month saw the start of another major project, Phase 1 of the Marsa Junction Project, an investment of over €70 million. “This project will see the elimination of traffic lights in this junction and the creation of seven flyover structures. It will not just change Malta’s road network in this part of the country as we know it today; it will affect the lives of all those who live or work in the southern part of Malta,” says Dr Borg. “To augment the benefits of the Marsa junction project, we launched a separate €20 million project to upgrade the nearby Santa Lucia roundabout with two tunnels linking Tal-Barrani Road directly to Vjal Santa Lucia and on to Triq Aldo Moro, and vice versa. This investment aims to make the junction safer, more efficient and easier for nearby residents to get in or out of their home towns.”  

In one of its 2018 Budget commitments, Government announced that it will be resurfacing 160 unmade roads; ones which, Dr Borg asserts, remain in a substandard state. In 2018, the Ministry will also be setting up the new roads agency, with the aim of introducing a paradigm shift in the way Malta’s road network is managed. “The Ministry has tripled this year’s road development budget allocation and for the upcoming year, we have allocated €60 million towards the improvement of our roads,” says Dr Borg. “Upgrading the road network is just one of my priorities to overcome our current difficulties. We are also embarking on other commitments to encourage a modal shift and reduce our current dependency on private vehicles. In the 2018 Budget, we announced several measures pertaining to this, including free school transport for all students, free public transport for young people and incentives aimed at the electrification of road transport.”

“Malta has set a target to have at least 5,000 electric vehicles registered on the road by 2020. In line with this objective, we announced a number of schemes and extended others for the coming year in the 2018 Budget. One new incentive is to waive the registration tax and road licence of new or imported electric vehicles for five years, and commercial companies that qualify under this scheme can also benefit with a capping of €200,000. Transport Malta also recently signed a contract with CarToGo Israel, which will be providing car-sharing services on our island, with a total investment of over €8 million. The company will invest in a 150-strong fleet composed of a mix of fully electric vehicles of different classes and in 225 charging pillars to bring our country’s total to 450. Added to the 102 existing ones installed by Government, we will be exceeding the EU-set national target of 500 for 2020 by 52 points.”

Opposition spokesperson for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, Marthese Portelli, cites an increased demand for cars as one of the key causes of traffic congestion. “The post-1987 economic boom has led to a significant increase in the per-capita vehicle ownership in our country, increasing both private and commercial traffic. Car ownership, car dependence and motorisation have shot up. Throughout the past 20 years, over 15,000 new licences have been issued in Malta every year, at times even exceeding 20,000. The number of licenced vehicles on the road is constantly increasing,” she says. “Another key reason for traffic congestion is our limited and ineffective mobility due to the continued deficit in the national transport infrastructure, the lack of alternative means of transport, and poor innovation. Public transport has also failed to achieve the desired results.”

Opposition spokesperson for Transport, Marthese Portelli

Dr Portelli says that a co-ordinated and well-mapped out plan needs to be implemented in order to address the problem, as currently, mobility is operating in a fragmented environment based primarily on isolated initiatives that do not always synergise with one another. “The solution to our traffic problem can only be achieved with the right attitude, a determined drive for systemic change, a passion for innovation, a holistic approach and a sincere collaboration across the board by all stakeholders. I reiterate what I have stated time and again – I am willing to help Government implement the change that is required through constructive criticism, ideas and support. All of us must do our part.”

In response to Government’s 2018 Budget measures aimed at tackling traffic, the Opposition has made it clear that they leave much to be desired. Dr Portelli says an intense set of initiatives were expected to be announced, rather than a handful of sporadic ones, and a mass transport system should be worked on without further delay, coupling this long-term solution with short- and medium-term initiatives. “To mention a few: introduce free publicly-funded school transport for all schools rather than simply embarking on a ‘study’; dedicated transport routes to and from concentrated centres such as the University, MCAST, etc; dedicated transport from strategic locations for public administration employees; incentives for shared transport initiatives; voluntary opt-in schemes whereby car owners may opt to use their private car on selected days and during particular times; incentives to encourage companies to opt out of using heavy and long vehicles at peak times; and better co-ordination of waste collection times, among many others.”

Deputy President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, David Xuereb

Deputy President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry and Chief Executive Officer of QP Management David Xuereb asserts that it is obvious that with an aged and poor quality road infrastructure, inherited over many years and across the country, it was inevitable that the ever-increasing demands would hit a maximum capacity. “This is where we are now. It is also obvious that the lack of proper planning, education and incentives to motivate people to use public forms of transport over many years has failed tragically, and society has now become accustomed to owning its own car because of poor alternatives.”

While he believes that improving the country’s road infrastructure will certainly help improve the quality of our travel experience while ensuring that it is safe for drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians alike, Mr Xuereb states that investment in road junctions and intersections will push congestion to another location and will not remove time wasted in traffic jams. “We really need to look beyond fixing what we have, but rather need, firstly, some easy quick-fixes to immediately address obvious bottle-necks in our road network, and secondly, to think innovatively by being strategic in the manner with which we wish our people and visitors to travel across the country.” 

The consequences of traffic congestion go beyond waste of time and impeded quality of life; it is also affecting the efficiency of local business and the potential strength of the country’s economy, says Mr Xuereb. “While some commercial activities require employees to conduct one main trip a day, many other businesses depend on efficient transportation and movement throughout the day. Increasing travel time in multiples of two to ten during normal hours is a serious setback to Malta’s business cost structures and hence its competitivity. This cannot be acceptable, and we certainly cannot remain complacent to the far-reaching consequences of inaction.”

Asked what alternative modes of transport he believes are worth exploring for Malta, Mr Xuereb says he’s a firm believer in the solutions that make use of artificial intelligence through the Internet of Things, namely shared, automated and electric transportation. “I dream of a time when very few in Malta will need to own a car, which also limits associated costs such as fuel, maintenance and storage, and will share into a network of IT-driven, driverless and electric vehicles.”

The full version of this article originally appeared in the December edition of the Commercial Courier.

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Country In A Gridlock: What's The Plan For Malta's Bleak Traffic Scenario?