I’ve linked to stories about the trouble with Mexico City’s new airport project a couple of times previously, but now it’s getting ugly enough that it warrants having its own post. Mexico City is desperately in need of new airport capacity, and help was on the way. But those plans are now in serious jeopardy, and a very poor plan has been proposed in its place. I imagine we should know for sure in the next couple of months which way this will go.
Mexico City’s airport problems go back for years. The current airport is in the city, hemmed in on all sides. It was built to handle 32 million passengers, but it now handles nearly 50 percent more than that. Slots are highly restricted, and there are two terminals that are on opposite sides of the airport from each other. That makes connections difficult. Considering that the broader metro area has more than 20 million people and is the largest metro area in the western hemisphere, a solution has to come about. This is a city that deserves a big airport.
After several false starts, a plan was settled upon. Mexico City would build a giant new airport that would replace the current one entirely. Money has poured into this project, and architectural designs were grand, to say the least. With a $13 billion+ price tag, this airport was incredibly expensive and there was substantial opposition.
The new airport itself is built near Texcoco in what is today an empty area, or was an empty area as you can see in the photo above. Why was it empty? Well, dust off those history books and you’ll remember that Mexico City was once a city on a lake. Centuries ago, efforts began to dry up the lakes and prevent catastrophic floods. As efforts went forward, pockets of water remained, but they continued to shrink. The area where the new airport is being built happens to be on top of one of one of the last lake remnants. It’s only in the last couple of decades that it has dried up.
That may sound like an ideal spot, but there are issues with soil stability and with conservation efforts in one of the last unpopulated areas near the city. Despite protests, the project has moved ahead. It’s now about a third complete, and around $5 billion has been spent.
You’d think by this point that project would have been settled, but no. In Mexico’s most recent presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador rode the anti-airport sentiment to victory. He promised he would halt construction and look elsewhere for airport capacity.
Shortly after being elected, it seems he realized this was a bad idea. To avoid the political fallout however, he decided to put it to a vote. Let the Mexican people decide if they want the new airport or not, and then the president-elect could deflect all blame regardless of the outcome.
The vote was held last week, and it was a farce. A referendum along these lines isn’t something that’s part of Mexican politics. The implementation was sloppy, to say the least. It was suggested that polling places were stacked in locations that were known to have people in favor of scrapping the project. There were also reports of people voting multiple times. Very few Mexicans actually voted, but the result from that small sample was a mandate to stop the project from moving forward.
What would this mean if it happens? The new president says he wants to build up Toluca, far out to the west, and add runways to a military base, Santa Lucía, in the north for commercial service. Along with the current airport, this would create more capacity, albeit in a three airport system. That’s not a feasible option, and it will instead split local traffic, depriving the creation of a strong hub at a single large airport. It also wouldn’t save the area around Texcoco from development. So much of the infrastructure has already been laid down that it will just be a hugely expensive white elephant. We haven’t even talked about the financial ramifications from halting a project with a lot of debt on it.
All hope is not lost. After all, López Obrador hasn’t even taken office yet. That happens December 1. Until then, the outgoing president has vowed to keep building as planned. When the new president takes over, he will undoubtedly have to deal with all sorts of lawsuits before any new plan could be put into place.
Unless López Obrador has a change of heart, Mexico City will continue to suffer from a lack of airport capacity for years to come. The presented solutions, whenever they can be implemented, won’t solve the issues at hand.