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Interview • September 05 2004

Minister on the move

Jesmond Mugliett, an architect by profession, has been entrusted with the roads and transport portfolio. He is also responsible for capital projects. Here he speaks of his new job that can either make him or break him

The House of the Four Winds next to Hastings Gardens in Valletta has had a new tenant since March. But the sedate environment surrounding the building, perched high on the bastions overlooking Marsamxett Harbour, is not a reflection of the thorny issues dealt with by the ministry it houses.
The new man around is Jesmond Mugliett, the youngish face of Gonzi’s Cabinet and one who has seen his very brief serene period as sports and culture minister shattered by a ‘promotion’ that has shot him to the centre of controversy.
Mugliett, whose official designation is Minister for Urban Development and Roads aptly shortened to MUDR, admits that when he was appointed sports minister after last year’s election, “expectations weren’t high.” The new portfolio has a much higher priority in government’s agenda.
“The new portfolio gives me a lot of headaches but I am in politics to face up to challenges that may come my way. “Like every politician I also had the wish to be a major player in Cabinet, being able to work on the topmost priorities of government. I am looking forward to see the positive impact on people of the various projects under my wing.”
Mugliett, however, does not hold any pretensions of one day being described as the minister who solved Malta’s road problems.
“It is difficult to earn that label. Every car trip is painful because I realise what needs to be done. And getting stuck in a traffic jam makes it all the more painful because it gives me the chance to observe every minor problem that hounds our roads.
“My aim is to deliver on the identified projects and hopefully implement a road improvement strategy, which will take us to 2012 at such a fast pace that makes it impossible to reverse. I would be satisfied if I managed to have set in motion this process to upgrade our road network.”
The ministry has an ambitious timetable for the next two years with road works financed by funds from the Italian protocol expected to be concluded by October 2005. The total amount of money poured into this extensive road building project runs to Lm12.5 million. But more roads will be rebuilt by funds coming from the EU’s cohesion and structural funds and Mugliett is optimistic that the first tender to be financed in this way will be issued this October.
“The first to benefit from EU funds will be the stretch of road from Hal Far to the Freeport. Works could realistically start by May next year,” Mugliett says. Other sections of Malta’s road network such as the St Paul’s Bay by-pass will also be rebuilt with EU funds. A number of other EU-financed road projects should see the light of day by October 2006.
Mugliett says that from its regular yearly budget allocation the ministry will be focussing on building or improving a number of secondary link roads and streets in residential areas.
“But we are also trying to establish the picture beyond 2006. With pre-accession funds we have contracted a foreign company to conduct a series of studies on how to improve two major thoroughfares part of the Trans-European Network, namely Route One from the Freeport to Cirkewwa and Route Five and Six from the airport to the Grand Harbour.
“A number of junctions along these routes need upgrading such as the Kappara roundabout, the junction next to the Shipbuilding, the link road between Paceville and St Andrews, the stretch of road in Xemxija leading to Mistra Village, the road from Mellieha to Marfa and the junctions just off Regional Road bridge and the Santa Venera tunnels. We are studying all options of improvement.”
I ask whether the policy would be to make roads narrower, a fad suggested by the German experts who were drafted in to give their considered opinion on road building and safety to the Maltese authorities.
“The policy is not to make roads narrower, rather to have consistency in the width of our roads. Our policy is to have a minimum two lane width in each direction on the Trans-European network section and in some instances it could expand to three lanes.
“This is part of the problem created in the Paceville area where it is impossible to have two lanes in each direction in the stretch of road that passes through St Andrews because there is no room for expansion. We are seeking different solutions such as a multi-level junction.”
A major concern for the past few months has been the Manwel Dimech bridge (Regional Road) where motorists have been forced to cut down on speed and heavy vehicles have been banned from driving over it.
Mugliett says the bridge has been certified safe by German experts for the next 12 months. “A couple of weeks ago the German experts issued a safety certificate for the bridge after the previous certification expired in July. The safety certificate was issued on the proviso that we continue with the same speed and load restrictions as present.”
Meanwhile, a call for tender is soon to be issued for experts to carry out studies on the bridges and determine whether they should be repaired or replaced. “The studies will continue until next summer when a further call for offers will be issued either for re-building or repair,” Mugliett explains.
Apart from the major roads, work is to be undertaken also in residential areas. Mugliett explains that the problem with residential streets is that contractors are quoting at rates far more expensive than what government is estimating. “There are around 40 roads around Malta which we would like to award tenders for but we cannot because of the problem. In some instances we have re-evaluated our estimates, but prices are still high,” Mugliett says.
Another thorny issue the Tarxien politician has to deal with is public transport. Mugliett is currently engaged in discussions with the Public Transport Association to implement a reform package. He argues the time is ripe for the system to undergo an overhaul.
“Public transport has been regulated for a number of years by various agreements, the last of which was reached in 1998. They covered various aspects such as bus-replacement, prices, routes and other issues.
“We are now reaching the end of the line as regards commitments made in 1995 on bus-replacement. The agreed number of replacements was 147 buses and this year we should reach that figure.
“It is obvious that we are now at a point when we need to reach a new agreement but we need to go beyond simple change. It has to be an overhaul,” Mugliett says.
With talk of liberalising public transport becoming even more rife in the EU, the minister says the domestic bus service needs to be able to compete and hence the reform. Mugliett says public transport has to be attractive, affordable and sustainable.
He is scant on detail, given the sensitivity of the talks that are underway, but Mugliett recognises the fact that bus fares have remained the same since 1998 despite repeated increases in the cost of fuel.
“Government has absorbed the extra cost by increasing the subsidy. I think the time is ripe for the bus fares to reflect the cost and we may have to review them. Having said this we know that increasing the fares has always led to a decrease of two per cent in patronage.
“It is government’s policy to encourage the use of public transport and with this in mind any increase in bus fares has to be accompanied by change,” Mugliett says.
His words sound very similar to promises made in the past by other transport ministers, I retort, but Mugliett does not concur with the argument.
“The bus system is not as bad as it is often made out to be,” he says. “But I am resolute on the issue of reform. Were it not because we want a true reform, the agreement would have been reached by now.”
Changes will be phased in over a period of months and could possibly include a reduced bus fleet, new routes with particular focus on University and the Hal Far industrial estate, vehicle tracking and more discipline.
I ask Mugliett what has become of the park and ride scheme for Valletta, which has been floated as an idea for quite some time with no concrete action ever being taken to implement the system.
“The park and ride scheme for Valletta is still on the agenda but there are pending issues related to relocation of industrial concerns. Apart from that we have to determine what type of contract is given, what type of shuttle buses are used and whether the proposal of a cable car can form part of the scheme. The project is being actively followed and I hope by next year it will take off the ground,” Mugliett says.
Another facet of public transport is the White Taxi service. Mugliett does not harbour the same enthusiasm for liberalising the sector as his fellow cabinet minister Francis Zammit Dimech, who last week told this newspaper he was personally in favour of more competition.
“Promises were made with taxi drivers in the past and they do not necessarily speak of liberalisation. That is why I am cautious before arguing for liberalisation.
“Taxi drivers say there is not enough work to allow for a liberalised service. They argue that they have competition from other services. There are examples of taxi monopolies in other European cities, we are not the only country with such a system.”
Mugliett says he has met representatives of the 200 or so taxi drivers and expressed his disdain for the way the operation is run. “There have often been claims of overcharging and unruly behaviour, both which I cannot accept. I am not at all happy with the way they conduct their protests at the cruise liner terminal. However, before entertaining the idea of liberalising the sector I have asked taxi drivers for a proposal on how they intend professionalizing their service. Taxi-metres will be introduced shortly. If I am happy with the way the service is being run I might be convinced that we need not go for liberalisation. But I will not tolerate a monopoly if they maintain their cowboy attitude.”
The ministry is currently engrossed in preparatory work on three capital projects, which all happen to be in the central and south of the island in what seems to be a political statement that government intends giving due attention to the ‘red’ zone.
“We are working actively on the regeneration of the Schreiber ground area in Paola where we have already submitted an outline application. Once the plans are complete we will submit a full development application. I expect that by year’s end it should be launched,” Mugliett says of the project that will incorporate parking facilities, commercial and residential units.
The second project that will soon be presented to Cabinet for approval is the development of the Number One Dock area in Bormla. The brief for the project is ready and also incorporates the historical buildings along side the dock.
But the grandest of the three must be the development of the site where the opera house ruins are found in Valletta. I ask for more details and with a grin Mugliett says that the brief is still being prepared.
“We are quantifying the project and a decision should be taken later on this month,” he says.
I ask specifically whether the new building, expected to house parliament, will be a replica of the bombed out opera house. “It is not necessary for the proposed structure to be a copy of the old opera house,” Mugliett argues.
“It is difficult to fit in the usage being contemplated for the new structure into the structure that housed the old opera house. Furthermore that type of architecture had certain ornamental stone work that is not easily replicated today. There is also the argument that the new building should be a statement of the 21 century and should talk the same language of the 21 century.”
The development, to also include Freedom Square, will not come cheap and at a time when government finances are not in good shape adequate financing has to be catered for.
“The site will definitely include an underground car park but we have not yet decided on what other usages the development will have.
“We do not want to have over-commercialisation of the area, which was a criticism made in the past when plans had been unfolded for the area. As regards financing, the car park could generate some of the funds, but we have to decide on how the difference will be financed. It will come either from government’s direct vote or from some sort of synergy with the private sector.”





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