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La Semana: Sunday, Mar 27
The week in government infrastructure projects
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s brief newsletter:
A Tale of Two Airports: Santa Lucía vs Texcoco
Stay tuned for a follow-up edition tomorrow on two additional timely topics.
Please send me your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You can always find all sources (with links) at the bottom of the email.
A tale of two airports: Santa Lucía vs Texcoco
On Mar. 21, a national holiday marking Benito Juárez’s birthday, President López Obrador—flanked by high-ranking military and his wife, while applauded by supporters—officially opened one of his administration’s signature projects. The Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA) at Santa Lucía military base located 39 km from the center of Mexico City launched with 14 domestic commercial flights and 1 international flight made by Venezuela’s state-run airline to Caracas. The AIFA is planned to have capacity for up to 18 million passengers in its first year. Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport reported traffic of over 50 million passengers in 2019.
Mexico City is notorious for traffic, but not just on the ground. The International Airport of Mexico City (AICM)—the busiest in Mexico and Latin America—is located in the eastern part of the city (just 5 km from Centro Histórico) and the noise pollution caused by air traffic has long been a complaint. Opened in 1931, the airport has been remodeled and expanded numerous times but has hit its capacity limit. In 2014, then-president Enrique Peña Nieto announced that a new airport would be built on federal land in Texcoco located only 5 km from the current airport site. This area had already been selected for building an airport in 2002 (during President Vicente Fox’s administration) but the project had been suspended after violent protests by owners of the expropriated lands. There were also environmental concerns about the construction’s impact on the area, particularly considering the city’s chronic water crisis.
Peña Nieto’s project was presented as a vastly ambitious, modern infrastructure tour de force that would replace the Benito Juárez airport and surpass its current capacity. It was estimated to cost 169 billion pesos initially, but by 2018 the budget had been amplified to 285 billion pesos. Renowned architect Norman Foster was hired to design the airport, along with Carlos Slim’s son-in-law Fernando Romero, designer of the striking Museo Soumaya. The airport was projected to have capacity for up to 70 million passengers in its first year of operation. As a comparison, Heathrow airport in London averages around 80 million passengers a year and Atlanta airport had passenger traffic of 110 million in 2019.
One of AMLO’s favorite bones to pick during his presidential campaign of 2018 was the Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de México (NAIM) which he described as a “pharaonic” project. As promised, he organized a referendum vote in October of that year (while president-elect) to ask the Mexican people to decide whether the airport should continue to be built in Texcoco or be built instead at Santa Lucía air force base: 69% percent of the 1,096,990 valid votes said “yes” to Santa Lucía. This high percentage in favor of AMLO’s project and the distribution of national voter participation (which over-represented municipalities governed by AMLO’s party, Morena) catalyzed controversy. National opinion polls conducted in the months leading up to the vote ranged from 39% to 63% expressing support for continuation of the Texcoco project.
When AMLO took office in December 2018 and officially suspended the construction of the NAIM, it was approximately 20-30% finished. The cancellation of the project cost the government an estimated 113 billion pesos (buying out contracts, legal fees etc) and the construction of AIFA cost 116 billion pesos, which means total expenditure comes to 229 billion pesos. This would be a savings of 56 billion pesos compared to the NAIM estimates. However, experts have pointed out that additional costs that will be incurred by building new transportation access to the Santa Lucía airport have not been fully considered, nor the fact that the government will have to subsidize the airport for at least four years until it is operational with more commercial flights.
“The distance [from the city] in itself isn’t relevant; what is important is that there is a lack of access in terms of distance, time and cost,” notes Josué Ríos M. in Nexos. “The availability of the infrastructure and mass transit systems that guarantee adequate connectivity and access is a crucial issue. Otherwise, travelers will continue to favor the old but familiar, and closer, Benito Juárez airport.”
Santa Lucía: mitos y realidades del nuevo aeropuerto internacional (Semanario Gatopardo)
5 efectos ambientales del NAIM en Texcoco, según Greenpeace (El Financiero)
Ready for landing: Mexico City airport expansion could make it one of the largest in the world (Christian Science Monitor)
El AIFA ¿un aeropuerto distante? (Nexos)