Infrastructure & Development: Today and the Future

Interview with the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure, and Capital Projects

The country has been experiencing an unprecedented infrastructural development necessary for the economic development. Do you think that this may be considered important for the better living of the Maltese population?

Definitely. Unfortunately, we form part of a generation that had become used to Government complacency in this respect. Our roads were left to their own devices for decades, and many were dumped onto our Local Councils’ plates, which were already quite full and certainly not equipped to cater for the necessary infrastructural upgrades. Thankfully, we now have a Government that acknowledges the need for a high- quality infrastructure as befits our country and its people.

We should consider ourselves lucky that we made such great strides in our economic growth in spite of the quality of our infrastructure. It was, of course, not a matter of luck, but a matter of hard work. Now that our economy is on its feet – proven time and time again, even during this stressful and difficult time – we realised that it is time to turn our attention to another pressing matter.

Most of Malta’s citizens, if not all, were pleasantly surprised when the electoral manifesto for this legislature put forward a €700 million plan to rebuild Malta’s residential roads over 7 years. Many were skeptical. But in the first year of its implementation by Infrastructure Malta, the residential roads project saw the contracting of 290 roads and the completion of 130 of these. Over 50 roads are currently being rebuilt and the agency is making preparations and holding discussions to conclude more lists and call for tenders for works in other streets according to priority.

And, yes, of course this has a positive impact on the quality of life of our people. I think everybody prefers to step out of their homes and onto a suitable street with safe accessible pavements and strong foundations that will last for years.

But we did not stop there. In the meantime, we have embarked on a nationwide upgrade of our arterial roads and junctions in an effort to alleviate the consequences of problematic bottlenecks. We have already completed a considerable number of these kinds of projects – the Kappara Junction, the reconstruction of the Marsa- Ħamrun Bypass, part of Regional Road and its Msida Valley Bridge, Tal-Balal Road, Buqana Road, Luqa Road, Qormi Road and St Thomas Road, to name a few. Other important projects such as the Marsa Junction Project, the Santa Luċija Tunnels Project and the Central Link Project are currently underway. We plan to complete and open the Marsa Junction and Santa Luċija Tunnels by the end of the year.

And, yes, this too is important for the standard of living of our country. Not only does the improved efficiency of our road network lead to less stressful journeys and commutes for road users; it also leads to improved road safety and considerable improvements in air quality as well as the aesthetic quality of our public infrastructure.

The list goes on and on. Our infrastructural endeavours are not limited to the quality of vehicle
lanes, foundations and asphalt. Every project takes into consideration underground services to avoid any other road closures or repeated works in the future, as well as new facilities for alternative modes of travel. Just recently, we inaugurated and opened a pedestrian and cycling overpass in Aviation Avenue between Gudja and Luqa, and we will soon open another one in Blata l-Bajda. These projects are very exciting for us, because they go hand in hand with our transport strategy, which encourages multimodality, and we feel it is our obligation to introduce safe infrastructure if we want people to use bicycles and to travel by public transport, or on foot. We have also introduced safer facilities for pedestrians and cyclists in different areas around the island. To name a few examples, last year we inaugurated Triq l-Aħħar Ħbit mit-Torok between Żabbar and Żejtun which has a segregated cycling and walking track, and a similar facility was introduced in Luqa Road, Qormi Road and St Thomas Road. Other areas, like Mdina Road, Żebbuġ and Tal-Balal Road include shared priority cycle lanes, while Buqana Road and Kappara Junction have cycle lanes as well.

Like I said, you can barely name a few examples without losing breath. And this is only road infrastructure. I think the Malta-Gozo Tunnel Project is on everybody’s mind right now as we’ve just announced the participation of four consortia and companies, including multinational companies, in the pre- qualification questionnaire stage, the first of a three-stage process to select the contractors who will be building and operating this long-awaited permanent link between the two islands. We look forward to the implementation of this important project which will perhaps be the biggest infrastructural endeavour our country has ever taken on.

We have also started gearing up on maritime infrastructure. We’re implementing other major maritime infrastructure projects, including the reconstruction of quays, pontoons and other facilities used by fishers in Gozo’s Mġarr Harbour, the new 110-metre breakwater
at Qrejten Point as well as new landing facilities for ferry passengers commuting between Valletta, Sliema and Cospicua.

We’re only getting started – our work for a better quality of life can never stop.

Given the size of the country do you think this rate of development is sustainable in the long term or such development is temporary to address the country’s current needs?

I think balance is key in everything we do. This is no exception. In fact, while we are carrying out the interventions we have already discussed, we are also doing our utmost to develop green infrastructure. The word development is often tinged with negative connotations, but the Malta National Park – for example – which is a very popular project with the people, is a type of development too.

Apart from that important capital project, we have also launched the Slow Streets initiative with the Local Councils’ Association, to give some peace and quiet to town and village cores. We all need to slow down a little and this is one of the ways in which we hope to achieve that.

In the meantime, the Public Works Department constantly implements upgrades on playgrounds and open spaces to improve and increase facilities, improving accessibility and introducing more trees and landscaping.

Infrastructure Malta has also embarked on a nationwide tree planting project, with over 12,000 trees planted in different locations in Malta in less than 12 months, and many more in the pipeline for the next few months.

The current rate of road development is of course unique to our time. We will reach a point where our road

network will be much better equipped and significantly higher in quality than what we inherited. In 7 years’ time, our residential roads will still be in good quality, and I believe things will slow down. We will always find new projects to initiate, because our road network is dynamic and changes with the times, but we are planning ahead for decades to come and hope to leave behind a more peaceful country, with an efficient road network that might only need tweaks, regular maintenance and other minor interventions.

Is there a plan to better address the country’s evolving needs or will Malta experience the same amount of development within a couple of decades in order to meet similar evolving needs?

Like I said, we do our best to blend short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions. We have projects that are intended to provide immediate results in tackling the negative impacts of current bottlenecks. These projects normally take a shorter time to complete and we keep them in mind for future interventions according to the changes around us.

At the same time, we have several forward-looking projects. I don’t think I need to explain why the Marsa Junction Project and the Central Link Project fall underneath this category. These multimillion investments will lead to a radical change in these important routes and the benefits on travel to the southern parts of Malta will last for decades. Studies carried out prior to implementation showed grave consequences had we not embarked upon these infrastructural investments.

Luckily, future generations won’t have to worry about solving a nearly insurmountable problem because we intervened just in time.

Of course, we cannot foretell what is to come, but we do our utmost to plan not just for now but for much later than our time, and we hope that our efforts will be enough to hold well in the future.

There is a visual impact on all development which over decades various administrations did not appear to have priority. This Government gave importance to this through the electoral manifesto by promising for example the removal of hanging wires particularly on facades. At what stage is this project and are there any visual oriented actions being taken?

When implementing major road projects, Infrastructure Malta liaises with the utilities providing electricity, water and telecom services to propose upgrades to their networks in the roads and streets that will be rebuilt through these investments. In fact, in almost every road project, Infrastructure Malta seeks to upgrade existing underground distribution networks, such as internet cables, water mains and sewers, whilst providing additional capacity for future demand, in line with requirements identified by the utilities. In the Marsa Junction Project and the Santa Luċija Roundabout Underpass Project, for example, we’re also building kilometres of underground walk-through tunnels
for high voltage electricity cables forming part of the country’s national electricity grid, to improve electricity services to thousands of residents in many localities.
In some cases, these new underground electricity, internet and telecommunication cables are also replacing overhead lines in residential areas, arterial roads and even in the countryside.

Thus, whilst the Government’s long-term commitment to reduce the visual impact of overhead lines and wires on building facades falls within the remit of another Ministry, through our projects, we are contributing to its attainment as well.

COVID-19 made many realise even more than ever before how important health is and that our actions damage the environment also in terms of air quality.
Is it time to complement infrastructure investment with air quality measures such as mass efficient electric transport, heavy investment in electric/alternative energy vehicles and roof gardens initiatives?

Government has been trying to incentivise and push towards this direction for a number of years now. I previously mentioned our introduction of safe infrastructure for alternative means on various road projects. This, however, is not being done in isolation.

Our free public transport initiative is perhaps among the most popular incentives in our sector. We started out with free public transport for all 18-year-olds in 2017. It was a successful pilot and today we have expanded the benefit to all 14-20-year-olds, all full-time students aged 21 and over, persons with disability and elderly people aged 75+. This has led to marked increases in public transport usage, and we have also registered a rise in interest by other segments of our population. This could be due to the improvements on bus shelters, newer buses on the network, free wi-fi on all public transport vehicles, as well as a more efficient road network and safer bus lay-bys.

We have also witnessed an increase in the usage of our inland ferry service between Valletta and Sliema and Valletta and Cospicua. We are also complementing this with improvements in infrastructure to provide better shelter and more accessibility for passengers, and we plan to expand the service to reach more locations in the coming years.

In the meantime, we understand that not every circumstance allows for a dependence on public transport. That is why we have started annually issuing grants to incentivise a switch from older polluting vehicles to more sustainable and, if possible, smaller ones. Starting with a €3.5 million budget, this year we have already had enough applications to take up €2 million in grants. The most popular schemes are the electric vehicle scheme, the car scrappage scheme, and the motorcycle and pedelec scheme. The numbers are very encouraging, and we hope to continue witnessing more in this sector.

We are finalising plans to roll out a nationwide pilot project which will increase public charging facilities for electric cars and the Government has also added an incentive which offers reduced electricity rates for people who charge their electric vehicles at home.

Another interesting addition to our transport sector in the last years is the concept of sharing. A few years ago, we hadn’t even heard of bicycle sharing, scooter sharing or car sharing. Today, we can see many of these vehicles travelling around our island and we have also recently witnessed the addition of a carpooling service on the market. We hope to start seeing e-kickscooters on our roads in the coming months, following new legislation we worked on with our Transport Authority.

Malta had a problem with tv aerials which problem seems to be replicated now with solar panels. May this be regulated encouraging more visually friendly mechanisms?

While we have taken it upon ourselves to push for improvements in air quality through a more efficient road network and cleaner modes of transport, the generation of electricity to power our homes is also an important factor when it comes to climate change. Of course, our recent switch from oil to gas has led to a considerable improvement in terms of sustainability.

However, I don’t believe it would be responsible to discourage people from investing in renewable sources of energy. Of course, yes, sometimes it can be a little bit of an eyesore, but I would rather dislike the solar panels on my neighbour’s roof and rest easier knowing that my daughter is breathing in cleaner air.

There are many things that can be done to improve the aesthetics here. Roof gardens come to mind – perhaps something like this can draw attention away from the solar panels, but I would not discourage people from investing in clean energy.

Malta’s aesthetics and uniformity seems to still be a considerable concern. Architects seem just interested in the building they are designing and not in the surroundings. Indeed, certain areas seem as if they have just come out of war. Is it time to address this? What do you think is the solution?

I am certain that the majority of our architects are doing a stellar job with their designs. Unfortunately, it is the eyesores that stick out the most, so I do not blame the observation. However, there are certainly mechanisms in place.

In Urban Conservation Areas (UCAs), for example, the Planning Authority puts forward a number of conditions and limitations for new development. These could be anything from whether or not a facade can be plastered and painted to the height of a storey to the width and depth of a balcony and the of the front door.

Our Authorities are doing their utmost in this respect. Of course, we cannot erase what is already there and in the past our planners did not consider these matters of uniformity. But, step by step, we will get there and the best we can do is just to do better now that we have the opportunity.

Camouflage of buildings through plants and other natural thing seems not to be the practice in Malta. Can Government lead by example to instil a culture of natural enhancement?

You’re right, it isn’t. However, we are starting to witness a little movement in this direction. I can give you an example from my portfolio. Along the sides of the Marsa-Ħamrun Bypass, Infrastructure Malta is transforming a long, high boundary wall into a vertical garden that will improve the daily commute of thousands of road users. Many other similar urban greening projects are in progress in other localities as well.

Camouflage of buildings through plants and other natural thing seems not to be the practice in Malta. Can Government lead by example to instil a culture of natural enhancement?

You’re right, it isn’t. However, we are starting to witness a little movement in this direction. I can give you an example from my portfolio. Along the sides of the Marsa-Ħamrun Bypass, Infrastructure Malta is transforming a long, high boundary wall into a vertical garden that will improve the daily commute of thousands of road users. Many other similar urban greening projects are in progress in other localities as well.

I am certain that if we continue looking ahead, we can come up with other similar initiatives, and who knows, maybe it will inspire the general public to embark on personal initiatives of this kind. Things like these are similar to a domino effect. It doesn’t start before someone flicks the first domino forward, but the ripple effect is impressive.

Given the density of population in Malta, given the rate of development is land reclamation still avoidable? To what extent this is being considered and will we have a sister man-made island?

I am certain that the studies being carried out by the relevant authorities will give us a clearer picture about this subject, and will make space for it to be better discussed in the future.

In order to encourage investment and mitigating the amount of new land built is Government contemplating schemes for the use of abandoned buildings?

It’s a very sad thing that we have so many abandoned buildings in our different localities. For a number of years now, the Government has been incentivising couples and families to invest in such buildings and transform them into the homes of their dreams. We have introduced

First Time Buyers’ Scheme, the UCA scheme and other initiatives of this kind to encourage and help our people to take these steps.

We have had a lot of people benefitting from the incentives, and that is encouraging, because it means that people are responding to our efforts.

In the meantime, as a Government we’ve also been taking a look at Government-owned derelict buildings and putting them to good use. The GHRC, in particular, has multiple projects around Valletta and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a couple of buildings that have been or are being transformed into suitable homes for social use.

I think it would be a pity if we didn’t use this important resource and I look forward to witnessing more and more people finding their dream home in one of these buildings.

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