Artist's conception of the new airport. Artist's conception of the new airport.

Airport bogged down more ways than one

Delays, legal issues make timetable difficult for Mexico City's new airport

Building Mexico City’s new international airport on boggy land that is sinking at the rate of almost a foot a year was always going to be a challenge, but the US $13-billion project is getting bogged down by more than just spongy soil, says a report by Bloomberg.

Delays on a rail line to the site and a key contractor filing for bankruptcy are among factors that could see President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature infrastructure project miss its scheduled 2020 opening date.

Legal action against the airport’s operators and the collapse of an overpass in last week’s earthquake that links the site to a new highway have been further setbacks, while construction of one of the airport’s runways is behind schedule.

Building the airport, which will include a futuristic, environmentally sustainable X-shaped terminal capable of handling up to 68 million passengers a year, has been a core project of Peña Nieto’s administration.

So problems and delays with the project would not only leave a blemish on his record but would also likely diminish his Institutional Revolutionary Party’s chances in the 2018 presidential election.

Before construction could even begin, layers of both geotextiles and tezontle had to be put in place on the 5,000-hectare site that was once covered by Lake Texcoco. A deep foundation system also had to be installed to increase the ground’s capacity to bear weight and slow down the sinking process.

But while problems associated with the tricky terrain were foreseeable, other setbacks were not.

The rail line, designed to be the main artery for transporting heavy materials to the site, is still not operational. Land disputes and heavy rain have caused it to run more than a year behind schedule, although it is expected to open next month.

The third runway is also behind schedule and could hold up the opening date if relevant testing has not been completed.

Project spokesman Octavio Mayen told Bloomberg that they are still working towards the 2020 deadline but an aeronautics expert said that assessment may be “optimistic.”

“When you have a lake, a river, and you’re building on top of it, it’s very difficult,” said Bijan Vasigh, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Another potential pitfall is that presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, currently leading in polls, has promised to scrap the project altogether should he win office, saying it’s too expensive and probably corrupt.

His alternative solution to alleviate pressure on the current airport is to build two new runways at an existing military base and then connect the two facilities, although his proposal has been scant on details.

Transportation Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza has warned against canceling the project saying that existing credit lines would still have to be paid.

A mix of public and private money is funding the project. A consortium led by a company owned by billionaire Carlos Slim won the contract for the construction of the terminal, which was co-designed by his son-in-law Fernando Romero.

Romero retains confidence in the project and said that building it will be an “extraordinary achievement.”

The director of the company building the second runway is also certain that it will fulfill its obligations on time despite the geological challenges.

“We have a 67-year construction history . . . .” Hector Ovalle of Grupo Coconal said.

“. . . We don’t just build things, we build them right.”

The federal government no doubt hopes that assertion will ring true for the entire project.

Source: Bloomberg (en)

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