The people voted to scrap the project that was one-third finished, $4 billion over budget, mired in allegations of corruption, and built on an unstable lake-bed. But it has a life of its own.
A year ago, the Mexican people — albeit a small fraction of the electorate — voted to scrap a new $13-billion airport for the capital that was almost one-third finished, at least $4 billion over budget, and mired in allegations of corruption. Around $5 billion had already been poured into the new Texcoco airport, which was to feature a futuristic, X-shaped terminal designed by Norman Foster. Another $8.3 billion was earmarked to finish it.
And for the foreseeable future, Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises, must continue to make do with an ancient airport, Benito Juarez, that is already overwhelmed by passenger numbers, has no room for further growth, and in some places, like many parts of Mexico City, is gradually sinking into the bed of one of the lakes on which the center of the city was originally built.
The final decision to undo years of construction work on Texcoco, at an estimated cost of $9 billion, ultimately fell to Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who had spearheaded the opposition to the project in the first place, mainly on grounds of corruption and lack of transparency. A staggering 70% of the contracts for the project, some of which had a duration of 50 years (with the option of extending them to 100 years), were awarded without tender, in direct contravention of the Mexican government’s own anti-corruption laws.
But the biggest problems with the Texcoco airport are structural and environmental. The site chosen for its development is a drained lake bed that happens to attract much of Mexico City’s run-off water. The ground still has extremely high water content and low resistance to stress. For the big construction companies involved, it would have been the perfect boondoggle: once the airport was built, the chronic structural problems that ensued would have necessitated huge amounts of maintenance work, just to keep the land fit for purpose.
“The Texcoco lake bed is the worst land imaginable for building any kind of construction on,” said José Luis Luege Tamargo, the former head of Mexico’s water regulator, in an interview. Under Texcoco’s marshy land is one of Mexico City’s most important aquifers, but it is being depleted at an alarming rate. As a result, the land above it is sinking at an average rate of between 20 and 40 centimeters a year, further increasing the risk of flooding at Texcoco. In 2014, Luege Tamargo alerted the consortium in charge of the project to these risks but his warnings were ignored.
Yet while the airport project may have been cancelled and some of the bonds issued to finance its construction have already been repaid, it is still far from dead and buried. An avalanche of more than 140 lawsuits brought by a tenacious, well-funded coalition of business leaders, airline representatives and lobbyists has prevented AMLO’s government from dismantling the work on Texcoco and proceeding with his alternative project, to build two commercial runways at the Santa Lucia air force base and a new runway at Toluca Airport..
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