Although cobbled together, the Mexican government had established a bidding process for the construction of the Mayan Train, one of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pet projects. Earlier this month, the government was about to announce the winner of the train’s stretch connecting the resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen alongside Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The project involved widening the existing highway between both towns by one lane to accommodate the Mayan Train.
At the eleventh hour, the president had a different idea: instead of a rail line running parallel to the Cancún-Playa del Carmen highway, the president ordered for it to be an elevated section. Moreover, the president unilaterally decided that the Mexican military would be responsible for the construction of the elevated railway. It would be far better according to López Obrador. Like an old hacienda owner who tosses out orders while riding through his lands, the Mexican president’s latest brainwave increased the Mayan Train’s price tag by at least the equivalent of US $1.4 billion.
Presidential whims are expensive. AMLO, as the Mexican president is also known, is upset with Mexico’s independent Chief Audit Office (ASF) for having announced that his brainwave of canceling the construction of the now-scrapped Mexico City’s International Airport in Texcoco (NAIM) costed the equivalent of US $16.2 billion. According to AMLO, the cost of cancelling the airport was the equivalent of US $5.3 billion. Let us go with AMLO’s figure which is well below the real cost of shelving the project. Those US $5.3 billion are still a disgrace. That would be enough to buy about 550 million Johnson & Johnson single-dose Covid-19 vaccines.
Mexico is AMLO’s ranch. He solely decides. Not a single study justifies the construction of the Mayan Train which is expected to go around Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The thing is that AMLO already has a ranch in Palenque, Chiapas where one of the Mayan Train stations will be located. He is thrilled with the idea of being able to board a train from his home when he retires, something AMLO has said he is already psychologically readying himself for. His term ends in October of 2024. Presidents in Mexico cannot be reelected.
Major public projects built on a whim turn out expensive. Former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto wanted his own train to go from Mexico City to his hometown of Toluca. It was an unnecessary project. In fact, during Peña Nieto’s six-year term the highway between Mexico City and Toluca was expanded. Moreover, there is also frequent bus service between both cities which a train cannot compete against in price or flexibility. The Mexico City-Toluca rail line was slated to be completed by late 2017 at a cost equivalent to US $1.8 billion. Today, the train price tag would be the equivalent of US $4.3 billion. The expected completion date is now the end of 2022.
AMLO recently stated that: “there is zero possibility of failing and not inaugurating the (Mayan) Train in 2023”. What is true is that the train will not be ready in two years and will cost much more than the equivalent of US $7.6 billion originally promised. But do not fret, AMLO fans! The Mayan Train will open whenever AMLO desires. I can assure you that a train will run on a track for a few meters and will be proclaimed ready in two years.
In an emergency like the current Covid-19 pandemic spending without restrain could turn out to be an asset. There were no political restrictions on tapping public funds to confront the virus. That is why it is so irritating that the Mexican government has not been able to purchase enough vaccines and that it has not done everything necessary to quickly immunize the Mexican population. AMLO promised us that the country’s roughly 15 million elderly adults would be vaccinated by the end of April. Only 2.7 million of them have received their first dose.
The total cost of AMLO’s whims will be seen at the end of his six-year term as president of Mexico. There will be budgetary costs particularly related to his pet projects, all poorly planned and executed, with increased cost overruns and the risk of never really working. There will be many other costs including the excess deaths from the AMLO administration’s appalling handling of the pandemic and bungling vaccine rollout. Costliest of all: not using his power to boost Mexico’s economic growth. Instead, AMLO is spending public resources on helping state-run utility CFE burn heavy fuel oil unnecessarily produced by state-owned refineries. All this in a context where the US economy will grow more than 6 percent, and with a US government like Joe Biden’s that favors greater regional integration in North America.
In a letter sent to her subordinates recently, Mexico’s Education Minister Delfina Gómez quoted Mexican president Benito Juárez: “Public officials cannot govern at the impulse of a capricious will”. There is one exception, that is: her very own boss.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom