Mexico referendum nixes partly built $13 billion airport

Economy & Business By: The Bullet Wire 1:46 pm

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s President-elect said Monday he will respect the result of a referendum that rejected a partly built new airport for Mexico City, effectively ending the $13 billion project.

“The decision taken by the citizens is democratic, rational and efficient,” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said after 70 percent voted against the plan. “The people decided.”

It is unclear what will be done with the enormous foundations already built on the site, a former lakebed known as Texcoco.

The organizers of the referendum reported late Sunday that just over 1 million people participated in the referendum. The vote has been criticized, in part because only about one out of every 90 registered Mexican voters participated.

Mexico’s peso dropped by about 2 percent against the U.S. dollar on Monday morning after the decision was made public, trading at about 19.77 to $1. The Mexican stock exchange’s IPC index dropped about 3 percent in early trading. Critics had said the cancellation might affect investor confidence in Mexico, but Lopez Obrador said investors, debt holders and contractors in the abandoned project will be protected.

Lopez Obrador had pledged during his campaign to cancel the Texcoco project, claiming it was marred by overspending and corruption.

He instead favors adding two commercial runways to a military air base in the town of Santa Lucia, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) away. That would imply an improved road to get there from Mexico City and the current 1940s-era airport. The current, saturated airport would have been closed had Texcoco been built.

Lopez Obrador said he had received assurances from international experts that the current airport and Santa Lucia could operate simultaneously. Still, given the distances between the current airport, the planned Santa Lucia terminal and the satellite airport in the nearby city of Toluca, it remains unclear how people could make connecting flights within any reasonable amount of time.

He said that Mexicans will save about $5 billion by abandoning the unfinished Texcoco project, which was started with what critics said was little real environmental study by current President Enrique Pena Nieto.

It was supposed to be the signature infrastructure project of Pena Nieto’s administration, though it wouldn’t have been finished for several years more. But the outgoing administration was marked by corruption and allegations of insider dealing with contractors, which helped propel Lopez Obrador to the presidency.

The referendum held over several days last week marked the first time such a large project had been submitted to a public debate and vote. Lopez Obrador said the decision meant “corruption has ended.”

Mexico’s business community — which overwhelmingly supported the now-cancelled project — questioned the referendum, which they said was unofficial, unrepresentative and biased.

“We recognize that the citizens expressed their opinion in the referendum,” wrote Juan Pablo Castanon, the head of Mexico’s Business Coordinating Council, an industry group. “But we repeat our position that the referendum, as it was organized, should not be binding and did not offer guarantees of impartiality certainty and objectivity.”

Later, Castanon fiercely criticized Lopez Obrador’s decision to obey the vote, saying it “seriously hurts Mexico’s image in the world” and “sends a message of uncertainty” to financial markets.

Some questioned whether such a decision, involving complex issues of air traffic control, should be decided in a referendum.

The national Confederation of Chambers of Commerce wrote that “it should be a technical and financial decision, not a political one, based on a popular vote.”

Lopez Obrador called the decision “a triumph for the environmental movement,” saying that the Texcoco project threatened to eliminate the last remaining vestiges of lakes that once covered the Valley of Mexico. Lake Nabor Carrillo had become a refuge for migratory birds but was too close to the Texcoco site and would have posed the threat of birds hitting jet engines.

Lopez Obrador said he hoped that the unfinished site could be used to create “a big sports and ecological center for Mexico City.”

However, much of the environmental destruction associated with the Texcoco project is already done: Millions of tons of rock were quarried in nearby towns and transported to the site to fill and drain the swampy former lakebed.

Part of the reason why Lopez Obrador — and many other Mexicans — were suspicious of the Texcoco project was the belief that the new airport would have continued sinking into the swamp or flooded.

The decision also spells an end to an ambitious design involving celebrated architect Norman Foster, which would have appeared from above as a giant “X,” an apparent reference to Mexico’s aircraft registration code which starts with X.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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