Editorial | Sunday, 25 January 2009

The road(s) to perdition

It has often been observed that Malta is currently in a shambles, but nowhere was this more evident than the state of our roads this past week.
Thursday brought with it some of the worst weather we have seen since September 2004, when heavy rains caused untold damage and brought the entire country to a standstill. Instead of a torrential downpour, the cause of the mayhem on this occasion was actually nothing more than a drizzle, albeit persisting far longer than usual.
Within hours, this light rain – which would be considered quite normal in much of northern Europe – literally wrought havoc on our streets, and the Civil Protection Department spent the better part of two days extricating motorists from ruts and chasms as floodwater combined with debris to tear up the asphalt street surfaces.
In fact there is scarcely a single arterial road in the country that was not heavily scarred by potholes, some several inches deep. Not even the more recent roads, built at considerable expense and presented to the public as state-of-the-art infrastructural achievements, were spared.
Mercifully, there were no fatalities in the ensuing chaos, although a number of people were injured, at least one of whom – a traffic policeman – is in a critical condition. But the experience this week has once again illustrated a painfully obvious truth about our country: that despite endless projects costing millions of euros, our infrastructure remains woefully substandard for a European Union member state; and for all our investment in foreign consultancies and tapping into EU funds, the construction of a single, half-decent road has somehow managed to give us all the slip.
The result is a country which, although fully developed, seems to transform as though by magic into a backwater shantytown each time it rains. And faced with this self-evident failure, we must ask ourselves a few basic questions. Who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs? Why has it proved impossible to build something as fundamentally important as a decent road network? In view of the current situation, can we honestly say that the present administration has got its financial priorities right?
The knee-jerk reaction would be to point accusatory fingers at the current infrastructure minister, and Dr Austin Gatt certainly has some explaining to do.
Besides, roadbuilding does not appear to fall under any one single department or authority, with the result that it is often difficult to establish a precise chain of responsibility when things go wrong afterwards. For instance, works on Glormu Cassar Road in Valletta in 2006 were carried out by the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) instead of the Malta Transport Authority (ADT), as one would perhaps expect. The decision to entrust these works to the MTA was heavily criticised at the time: but even when new roads were built by the ADT - such as the one linking Rabat to Mtarfa – structural defects soon surfaced here as well.
These teething problems continue cropping up to this day. Just last September, the Infrastructure Minister announced an investment of €1.3 million in the construction of a number of new roads in localities like Birkirkara, Fgura, Xghajra, Mellieha, Mosta, Mgarr, Mtarfa, Rabat, Zabbar and Zurrieq.
It is indeed unfortunate that some of the above areas - most notably Birkirkara - proved to be the worst affected by this week’s rains. And considering the danger to motorist posed by all this danger, it is astonishing that there are no immediate signs on the roads to warn drivers of the presence of potholes.
Questions also have to be asked about public accountability in the case of damage to private vehicles – and even more so in cases of personal injury or death – on account of poorly built and badly maintained roads. At a time when the cost of maintaining a private vehicle is constantly on the increase, and older vehicles are devalued year by year as of the last budget, it is hardly fair on the part of government to disavow all responsibility when its own negligence or incompetence causes damage and expense to others.
One question that should certainly be asked is the wisdom of the present government’s spending regime. In view of all this chaos, it is scarcely credible that the government would forge ahead with a project, estimated to cost €80 million, which would address none of the country’s several pressing infrastructural problems, while at the same time only catering for the future legacy of the incumbent Prime Minister.
And given also that the effects of the global economic crisis are slowly starting to be felt also in Malta, it borders on the incredible that the nation would be asked to give its blessing to a new House of Parliament, when what is actually needed is a new set of roads which can handle a little adverse weather for a change.
At a time when Social Policy Minister John Dalli has publicly admitted that he lacks the money to pay medicine distributors what they are owed – and when a cash-strapped government delayed renewing the university staff’s collective agreement for six whole years – the general public may well scratch its head in bewilderment when Dr Gonzi announces that money is suddenly no longer a problem when it comes to financing a new Parliament, or incrementing MPs salaries.
Clearly, our nation’s priorities are as seriously flawed as our roads.

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