Mexico's President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has announced his team will submit the future of the new international airport of Mexico City (NAICM) to a popular consultation in October, potentially giving voters the power to decide its final location.
Lopez Obrador put two options on the table: to continue with the airport construction on the basin of the Texcoco Lake, a highly controversial region in which the local population strongly opposes the airport; or cancelling the project in its existing form and instead expanding the Santa Lucia military airbase.
The president-elect announced the consultation in a press conference along with the future transportation secretary, Javier Jimenez Espriu, and his chief of staff, Alfonso Romo.
"It's a difficult decision," said Lopez Obrador. "An issue that was inherited, but that we have to face."
He also promised his government won't "tip the scales in favor of one of the options," and won't be the puppet of "created interests." He didn't dismiss the option of giving up the NAICM as a concession in case the people decide to continue with the project in Texcoco.
Lopez Obrador's team presented a set of pros and cons for both options, and he said experts, engineers and social and business organizations will present reports on the matter by September. Those reports will be available for public discussion through different media outlets.
Although he didn't specify how the consultation would be carried out, he did say the proposal will also be presented to outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto.
"We can place tables in public squares and people can organize to count the votes," said Lopez Obrador. "Another form would be a national poll with observing citizens so there can be no doubt."
The right to consultation is guaranteed by the Mexican constitution, but can only be proposed by the president, a third of lawmakers or two percent of voting citizens. This would explain Lopez Obrador's need for Peña Nieto's help on the issue.
Also, he said the National Electoral Institute (INE) won't take part and that the outcome of the consultation will be legally binding. However, in order for it to be legally binding, the consultation must be organized by the INE and have at least 40 percent participation.
Texcoco or Santa Lucia?
Jimenez Espriu read a summary on both options, as a sample of what's to come in the national discussion.
The NAICM in Texcoco, he said, would have a great capacity in the long term and is already at 31 percent of its development. Most of the financing is already available, but the construction costs have risen from 168 billion Mexican pesos (US$8.5 billion) to 300 billion (US$15 billion) during the four years it's been delayed. The maintenance costs would also be very high, although these are yet to be determined.
To leave the project as it is would also imply the definitive closure of the current Benito Juarez international airport and the Santa Lucia military airbase due to 'aeronautical reasons,' an increase in airport taxes and the final price of tickets.
It would also need to transform the Nabor Carrillo Lake into a 'flood-regulation lagoon,' which represents a negative environmental impact.
To build the airport in the Santa Lucia military air base would be considerably cheaper, as experts estimate only 70 billion pesos (US$3.6 billion) would be needed, and it would allow retention of Benito Juarez airport.
"Having two airports instead of just one would give Mexico City better protection in cases like earthquakes, storms and volcanic activity," said Espriu.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) MITRE aeronautic investigation, hired by Mexico's communication and transportation secretary, said it wouldn't be viable to keep both aiports airports operating. However, independent groups of experts collaborating with Lopez Obrador's team maintain the opposite.
Espriu declared they would require a third opinion, for which they would hire an independent agency to carry out a study that could take five months to complete.
Having separate operations in both airports generates an increase in operation costs for airlines, as well as possible inconveniences for passengers.
Also, the project would be on much more stable terrain and conclude sooner, as most of the infrastructure is already available.
Cancelling the current NAICM project would cost about 100 billion Mexican pesos (US$5.3 billion), implying difficult negotiations with creditors and contractors.
Atenco's Struggle Against the Airport
During his campaign, Lopez Obrador promised he would cancel construction of the NAICM, a project rejected by most of the local population. But as his victory loomed, a meeting with one of Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim, changed Lopez Obrador's mind.
Social organizations and local communities in what's left of Texcoco Lake declared their mistrust of the president-elect when he backtracked on his original promises, and said they won't take part in the consultation.
"We don't agree [with the consultation] because we have been assaulted and put in jail, our rights have been violated and our female partners attacked," said the People's Front in Defense of Territory-Atenco (FPDT), a group opposing the project since it was first announced in 2002.
On Wednesday, the FPDT and other social and environmental organizations marched to Lopez Obrador's offices in Mexico City and handed his team a set of petitions and scientific arguments in opposition to the NAICM project.