Mexico: Referendum to decide fate of a $14bn airport project

President-elect Lopez Obrador says he will go by what people decide but scrapping the project would cost billions.

Mexico''s new airport
The president-elect made the future of the airport one of the key issues of his campaign [File:Eduardo Verdugo/AP]
Correction29 Oct 2018
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the estimated cost of the NAIM proyect as $13bn. The most recent estimate is $14.5bn.

Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said the fate of a controversial new airport in the country’s capital will be decided by voters in a popular consultation that began on Thursday.

The president-elect, popularly known as AMLO, made the future of the already under construction airport one of the key issues of his campaign, describing it as a waste of taxpayers money.

The 64-year-old leader, who succeeds Enrique Pena Nieto on December 1, has also criticised the environmental impact of the project that is estimated to cost more than $14.5bn.

The new airport is a “bottomless pit” rife with corruption, he said during the presidential election campaign.

But the vote, whose results are expected on Sunday, has put the president-elect on a collision course with the business sector and rival politicians, particularly from the outgoing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) party.

Business leaders and many analysts say the country needs to replace the capital Mexico City’s current airport which, according to them, is ageing and overstretched.

“It is essential to build this new airport,” Jorge Triana, a Mexican politician affiliated with the National Action Party (PAN), told Al Jazeera.

“[Mexico City] holds a strategic position between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and this means we can be a strategic connection point which eventually will lead to investments and economic growth.”

“Our current airport is saturated,” he added.

Once completed, the airport will be able to handle 125 million passengers annually, making it the second-largest airport in the world, according to the outgoing government of Pena Nieto.

Obrador threatened to cancel the project as part of his promise to crack down on public waste and improve Mexico’s finances, but after he won the election he proposed a referendum to decide the fate of the project.

“All Mexicans will decide, there will be a public consultation, transparent and honest, to reflect the feeling of most Mexicans, and that result will be binding,” Obrador said in August.

Javier Jimenez, the incoming transportation minister, said there would be two choices in the referendum, to continue the project or cancel it.

If people vote to continue it, the government could resort to a mix of public and private financing to save taxpayers money.

But if people vote to cancel it, the government would continue to use the existing airport and repurpose an old military airbase in Santa Lucia south of the capital.

“I believe the option in Santa Lucia is the most feasible one,” Armando Vazques Pliego, a Mexican pilot, told Al Jazeera.

Pliego said that Mexico could operate without a new airport if Santa Lucia were developed.

“I believe not all options are being rightly assessed, and the negative economic and ecological impact are not being rightly considered,” he said, referring to the environmental impact of the new airport.

It was not until 2014 that current President Pena Nieto put the airport back on the agenda [Miguel Tovar/AP photo]
It was not until 2014 that current President Pena Nieto put the airport back on the agenda [Miguel Tovar/AP photo]

An old idea

The proposal for an airport in Mexico City was first announced in 2001. Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president between 2000 and 2006, tried to acquire land for the proposed airport but the plan did not take off due to farmer protests.

It was not until 2014 that current President Pena Nieto put the airport back on the agenda.

Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest person, is the main investor in the controversial project, which is expected to be completed by 2020.

Slim’s construction firm CICSA was awarded the $4.7bn contract to build the terminal in consortium with six other companies.

Supporters of the project argue that it will bring jobs to the capital's poor eastern districts [File: Miguel Tovar/AP Photo]
Supporters of the project argue that it will bring jobs to the capital’s poor eastern districts [File: Miguel Tovar/AP Photo]

But supporters of the project argue that it will attract investors and bring jobs to the capital’s eastern districts.

And if the president-elect decides not to continue, analysts believe he will scare investors – the very people that Mexico needs for creating jobs.

“This is one of the biggest projects the country has had in decades,” Victor Alvarado Martinez, a Mexican economist, told Al Jazeera.

“But as an economist, I have to say the cost of cancelling right now is really high, a radical change in this project that has already started would concern the investors.

“And that would directly affect our economy, particularly our exchange rate. This is not a risk we should take,” Martinez added.

But those against the project argue that the rich biodiversity of the area, which attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds annually, would be destroyed.

“The new airport has been criticised by ecologists because there is an artificial lake with hundreds of thousands of birds. Some of them, the ducks, were dangerous for the aeroplanes and they were expelled by reducing the water level,” Professor Bernardo Bolanos, based in Mexico City, told Al Jazeera.

The controversy over the project has divided Mexicans and caused a war of words between Slim and AMLO.

During the campaign period, Slim said AMLO would stop the development of the country, while the leftist leader dubbed the airport as “a symbol of waste and corruption”.

But Obrador softened his stance after his election victory in July.

The airport, which is about one-third completed, will cost billions of dollars if the new government decides to scrap it.

The consultation process is a preview of the democracy that the president-elect is envisioning for his administration. 

But Triana from PAN believes “Obrador is setting a dangerous precedent”.

Source: Al Jazeera