During a trip to Berlin, a tourist guide explained to us that underneath the street we were standing on ran a new subway line. Nothing was visible. He was referring to the fact that city planners had conceived the line “since the turn of the 20th century, when the master plan for the entire (Berlin subway) system was drawn up”. What he meant to say is that they were ready to open the line when necessary.
In Mexico, on the other hand, public works are usually done posthaste and with no planning. Sometimes, pressure from the higher-ups forces to hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the mere political benefit of whoever came up with the idea. Such was the case of Line 12 of Mexico City’s subway in late 2012. Almost nine years later, a subway overpass collapsed killing 26 people. But at least the Line 12 was a necessary infrastructure project. While it operated, it was of enormous benefit for many Mexico City residents.
Other projects, like the Mexico City-Toluca passenger train, have become an absolute waste. President Enrique Peña Nieto celebrated as the train construction began in 2014. But the train was a presidential whim. With no completion date in sight, time has magnified the initial disaster. Good bus service and two highways connect Mexico City and Toluca. There will hardly be enough demand to make the train profitable. Operating costs will run high because of the steep terrain. The train does not even reach the Toluca International Airport.
When poorly designed public works do come into operation -as happened with Mexico City’s subway Line 12- the costs of their haphazard construction soon come to light. When unfinished, like the Mexico City-Toluca train, resources spent with zero social returns start adding up. The actual trains –double the number required for the project- were purchased years ago. They are rusting away in some warehouse in Toluca. The project was originally budgeted at MXN $39 billion. Yet, MXN $48 billion having been spent so far. Now they say it will end up costing MXN $93 billion. Surely the tab will grow. Mexico’s public coffers might be better off if the Mexico City-Toluca train never opens. Given the design flaws and the predictable low passenger demand, it tickets will not reflect real costs, so a permanent government subsidy will be required for it to operate. Losses will end up eating up resources for maintenance, as we have seen in the Mexico City subway. Tragedies then ensue.
In 2018, president López Obrador decided to cancel the construction of Mexico City’s new International Airport in Texcoco (NAIM) which was one-third complete and reasonably well planned. The president’s action highlighted the vices of carrying out public works in Mexico. Airport tax on passengers minimized the fiscal cost of the project. Development at the site of the current airport in the eastern part of Mexico City would have yielded income for the federal government and would have benefited the city’s poorest area.
By canceling the new airport in Texcoco, López Obrador showcased how if an infrastructure project is not completed during Mexico’s single six-year presidential term it is destined to die. That is why López Obrador wants to complete his own infrastructure projects before his term ends in 2024. The rush to complete his projects (the Mayan Train, the Dos Bocas oil refinery) portends serious future problems. None of these projects kicked off with a master plan.
Mexico City’s subway tragedy must lead to punishment for those truly responsible, but also to a reassessment of how public works are done in Mexico. We should be discussing, how to ensure that president López Obrador’s infrastructure projects do not end up with faulty construction defects or bad planning. No one should be more on board with this than president López Obrador. He has insinuated that the real responsible for the collapse of the subway’s overpass was former president Felipe Calderón, who was President when Mexico City´s left wing mayor Marcelo Ebrard built it. If he believes this, the troubles that will eventually beset his own whims will undoubtedly fall on him.
Instead of him thinking about reforming things that work (like Mexico’s independent elections body), legislative energy should be aimed at what clearly is flawed, like public works. We must push legal changes so that infrastructure decisions are contingent on a serious cost-benefit analysis and a master plan, while shielding them against future presidential whims. Long-term planning is the only way to build infrastructure that detonates growth in Mexico.
* 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