Throughout the first year of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, which began in 2012, he was launching major policy and infrastructure initiatives as if his pants were on fire and he needed colossal government projects to put them out. A little over two years into the administration, however, the feverish pace of advance has hit a significant rough patch and the president has returned to earth with a thump. We recently faced up to the collapse of one of the most ambitious proposed infrastructure projects, the high-speed passenger train to Querétaro. Despite our broken dreams, there really was no reason for us to expect that the Querétaro train would ever be built, as we have a well established track record of projects large and small being abandoned and swept under the rug after being announced to great fanfare. And the most hair-raising of these in recent memory must be the new airport for Mexico City proposed by President Vicente Fox in 2001.
Hand wringing over the inconvenient and potentially dangerous saturation of the Mexico City international airport goes back easily 20 years. In October of 2001, then-President Vicente Fox announced to trumpet blasts and cymbal crashes that the government would build a new airport in the municipality of Atenco in the State of Mexico, just outside Mexico City. The technical plan may have been great but we did not get the chance to find out, because the political team neglected to bring local landholders in the area on board before announcing the new project. Advance construction teams were met by machete-wielding farmers, police were sent in, and the dispute rapidly deteriorated into a violent conflict resulting in arrests, deaths and accusations of grave violations of human rights by the police. As a result of extraordinarily inept handling, the whole airport project was scrapped and conflicts with the Macheteros de Atenco dragged on for years.
In the years since, the need for a new, or at least expanded, airport has been raised with regularity. Expanding the existing airport was repeatedly ruled out due to a range of factors including lack of available land and environmental impact to the former lakebed in the area. Alternative sites were proposed, such as the municipality of Tizayuca in the nearby state of Hidalgo, and discarded for one reason or another. Initiatives were raised to channel some Mexico City air traffic to nearby airports in the cities of Toluca and Cuernavaca, although these have not prospered to the degree hoped.
Despite the numerous reasons raised to rule out most of the expansion proposals, the administration of Felipe Calderón went ahead and built a second terminal on the existing airport site, inaugurated in 2008. The move provoked some head-scratching at the time, since such an expansion had been ruled out for years on the grounds that no space was available on the site for an expansion. The addition of Terminal 2, however, did not quell the clamor over the acute saturation of capacity at the airport. Then, as if the topic had never been broached before, the Peña administration announced in late 2014 that a behemoth new airport would be built on land adjacent to the existing one. The new site apparently has been designed by a team led by British architect Norman Foster and will make the Great Pyramids of Giza look like grandpa’s tool shed. The government proceeded without delay to begin handing out tender contracts for the initial work, and guys are over there fiddling around with shovels as we type this.
We suppose we are happy that we will presumably get a flashy new airport. But something’s funny here. How is it that after 15 years of finger-wagging and assurances that there was no way a new airport could be built on the Texcoco lake bed, now all of a sudden these guys just announce, ‘OK, new airport here, hand me that trowel, will ye?’ Is it fair to ask, what is different now from before, when an airport couldn’t be built there? We presume someone at the Communications and Transport Ministry (SCT) must have prepared an answer to this question just in case it was asked, but we have not seen it raised in the media so far. So let us go on record as saying that something is fishy here, but nonetheless *sigh* if they actually do build this thing, it will probably be pretty cool, and it was about time.
The question has been raised as to what will become of the existing airport, or at least the land it is on, if and when the new airport is built. This is a delicious question, and will be taken up in a future post. First we want to see if this new airport project isn’t bagged in the next few months like the Queretaro railway was.