Monday, February 29, 2016

Why are roads so bad?

Why are our roads so bad? This is a question so many people ask in Malta. This does not only include drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who have to bear the brunt of potholes, shoddy works, bumps and poor infrastructure, but also first-time visitors who are usually surprised to see a Third World infrastructure in an EU member state.
This is a question I myself have been asking for years and which I have been trying to verify ever since I have been a local councillor since 2003.
Like many residents, I have witnessed the disproportionate influence of various contractors who overload their trucks with bricks and debris, thus causing damage to roads and pavements. I also witnessed some examples of bad road works, which were later on tested and found to be in violation of existing standards, thus forcing proper resurfacing. At times, newly resurfaced roads had to be opened up, sometimes due to lack of coordination from government authorities.
I have also witnessed some examples of good workmanship, especially when there is a professional working relationship between council administration, architects and contractors, and when there is proper supervision. Yet, as more time passed, I also witnessed the growing financial constraints of local councils despite having huge responsibilities such as those related to residential roads.
Hence whenever I see roads around Malta in a very bad state, I relate this to one or more of the reasons above. The lack of council funds to maintain degrading roads is however becoming increasingly the case.
Therefore, even when local councils do have professional contractors and architects and proper supervision, the lack of funds may be a limiting factor as regards quality of roads.
Local councils usually have enough funds for the resurfacing of around one or two roads a year
In real terms, and on average, local councils usually have enough funds for the resurfacing of around one or two roads a year, given that council funds must also be used for a myriad of other expenses. At the same time, local councils have no fiscal autonomy and are increasingly dependent on government discretionary schemes.
A normal sized residential road costs around €100,000, including tarmac and new pavements (which would cost, for example, between €15,000 and €20,000), but the cost may vary depending the current state of the road surface. The worse its condition, the higher the cost.
Longer residential roads cost more, with costs going up to between €200,000 and €300,000, and arterial roads obviously cost much more, though the latter can benefit from State and EU funding.
Financial constraints and urgent priorities in different roads sometimes influence local councils to choose to resurface parts of different roads instead of a whole road. Such ‘boxes’ are costly too, sometimes costing between €10,000 and €20,000 each. Besides, local councils also have to pay for smaller patching works, which, cumulatively, cost quite a lot, too.
Besides, there are also other factors which do not seem to help the situation. For example, when developers carryout construction works, they pay Mepa for road works close to the developed site. Most of these funds are transferred to Transport Malta – the authority ironically responsible for arterial roads. So much for decentralisation and local council empowerment.
Is Transport Malta using all such revenue for residential roads? Or is it using some of the money for arterial roads? Or is it using it for other purposes?
Judging by the terrible situation of various roads in localities characterised by ongoing construction, something does not seem to fall in place.
Or maybe Transport Malta is utilising all such funds for residential roads, but there are not enough funds to make up for damages to roads caused by the construction industry. Yet, given that Transport Malta and the Ministry of Transport are not exactly shining examples of good governance and transparency, it really needs to convince the public that the quality of roads is really give the priority it deserves.
Will Minister Joe Mizzi provide comprehensive information regarding what is being done with funds earmarked for residential roads?

Monday, February 22, 2016

(Junk) Kings of the Road

If we needed any reminding of the dangers of car pollution to people’s health, this has been provided by a recent scientific study that has hit the headlines in the global media.
The study forms part of the Global Burden of Disease project and its findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It concluded that more than 5.5 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution every year.
The study argues that air quality is the leading environmental risk for human disease, and that the reduction of air pollution is “an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population”.
China and India account for half of these deaths, and the burning of coal is a main cause of this.
However, particulate matter is not only emitted from coal-fired power stations, but also from factories and cars. This is increasing cancers, heart diseases, strokes and lung infections.
In an earlier study, the World Health Organisation had also made similar findings. And pollution increase is also related to other global challenges such as climate change.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that statistics issued by the EU last year show that Malta had the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions across the EU since 1990 and that the main culprit was transport.
One may say that newer forms of transport emit less particulate matter than older forms of transport, but the fact is that car usage is consistently increasing in Malta and that many old cars remain polluting our roads. And surveys in Malta are showing relatively high concern on issues related to transport, environment and air quality.
To date, next to nothing is being done to remove heavy polluters from Malta’s roads. Not everyone may be aware that such polluters may be reported through an SMS system to 5061 1899, where one simply writes the number plate of the car in question. Yet, the overall impact of this scheme leaves much to be desired.
Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal
A year ago, in an article I wrote for this newspaper I discussed the fact that in a two-year period, only 38 cars were removed from Malta’s roads by the transport authorities due to excessive pollution. One can easily count such a number of cars in this situation after five minutes in Regional Road.
In my article I had asked why was it that only 681 notifications were sent to car owners when Transport Malta received 22,182 reports of heavy polluters? I also asked whether detailed statistics be provided and what were the criteria for submission of notifications? So far, no reply has been forthcoming.
This issue was also raised in Parliament last week by MP Ryan Callus who asked Minister for Transport Joe Mizzi for updated figures in this regard. It transpired than in 2015, 13,000 SMS reports on polluting vehicles were sent in by the public, yet only 262 were called in for checking and only 32 failed to pass the test.
To me, this is bad environmental governance. It is crystal clear that Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal.
Culprits include certain vehicles used for the transport of tourists and schoolchildren, certain delivery vans, many construction trucks which are fit for scrapping, and many private cars, including some newer ones which ‘mysteriously’ emit black pollution.
To be fair, in government’s Budget for 2016, incentives were introduced to encourage the scrapping of old cars and the purchase of electric or hybrid cars. Yet such incentives, positive as they are, will never be universally significant, and can have little impact when transport authorities keep tolerating heavy polluters.
It should also be noted that Malta has one of the oldest car fleets in Europe. What is Mizzi waiting for to suggest cut-off dates for the removal of old polluting junks and to have on-the-road spot checks for excessive emissions?
The issue is made worse when one considers that Malta is still awaiting a proper, reliable and efficient public transport service, though the current service providers are being rewarded with expanding subsidies and other forms of government support.
Fragmented governance, next-to-inexistent enforcement and tokenistic measures are a far cry from what is required to protect people’s health and the environment.