A MXN169bn ($11.4bn) project to build an international airport in Mexico City is ready for take off, with the government expecting ground to be broken before the end of 2015. The airport is the most significant in a series of large-scale projects designed to tackle shortcomings in the country’s transport and logistics system, signalling the government’s commitment to continuing with major infrastructure developments, despite recent project cancellations.
A lot of thought has gone into what could well be the defining project of the six-year presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18). Having launched structural reforms in 2012-14, particularly in the energy, telecoms and education sectors, the president wants the new airport to be a bold statement of Mexico’s commitment to modernisation.
The existing Mexico City International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México, AICM), also known as Benito Juárez International Airport, was built in 1952 when the Mexican capital had a population of 3m. Today, with a population of over 21m, the AICM struggles to cope, currently operating at or above its capacity of 32m passengers a year. It is the second-largest airport in Latin America by passenger traffic (after São Paulo) and the third largest by air cargo tonnage (after Bogotá and São Paulo). A second runway was built in 2007 but was, at best, a temporary solution, with its proximity to the first runway ruling out their simultaneous usage.
Surrounded by urban sprawl, there is no further room to expand at the current airport site. A report by think-tank Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad concluded that AICM can no longer adequately serve the needs of the Mexican economy and estimated that a 10% increase in transport costs caused by airport congestion or other factors can reduce foreign trade by as much as 20%.
The presidential solution is bold: to build a brand new airport, the New Mexico City International Airport (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México, NAICM), 10 km further out of the city in the Texcoco Valley, which will eventually have six runways and the capacity to handle 120m passengers a year. The contract for the initial design went to a partnership of British architects Foster + Partners (known, among other things, for Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport) and Mexican architects Fernando Romero Enterprise (responsible for the silver-curved Soumaya Museum).
The two firms came up with the concept of an x-shaped terminal structure, with features that echo the coat of arms on the Mexican flag. NAICM is intended to stand as an iconic gateway to a vibrant emerging economy. The project has been described by US research group Mitre Corporation as “probably the most advanced modern airport project worldwide” in part because of its intention to simultaneously handle traffic from six separate runways.
The Ministry of Communications and Transportation (Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes, SCT) announced the details of the tendering for the new airport in early July 2015. With MXN95bn ($6.4bn) worth of work to be spread across 21 packages, the new facility is expected to be ready by October 2020, according to the Mexico City Airport Group (Grupo Aeroportuario de la Ciudad de México, GACM), the new airport’s future operator.
Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, minister of the SCT, said the tenders would be issued in three stages, covering preliminary work, infrastructure components and commissioning elements. Tenders for the first phase, which focuses on land levelling, drainage and electricity supply, as well as three runways, a control tower and a control centre, were launched in September. The second phase of tenders, which includes the terminal building, boarding platforms and electronic airport control systems, will be launched in the first half of 2016. The third and final phase, which features the fire station, support buildings, parking facilities and roadways, will follow in the second half of 2016, and extend into 2017. While California-based engineering group Parsons will manage the project, Esparza stressed a desire for participation from Mexican firms, which could enter into consortia with foreign firms “when necessary”, he told local press in July.
Any project of this size and ambition will attract both supporters and opponents, and the government is already facing potential obstacles. Texcoco Valley residents successfully resisted 2001 plans to build an airport in the area and there have been renewed attempts made to oppose the new project, although this time no communally owned land needs to be expropriated. Miguel Mancera, the mayor of Mexico City, has said his administration has concerns over how the transition will be handled and asked to be consulted by the federal authorities. A political debate is emerging over what is to be done with the land at the exiting airport after it is decommissioned. Congress has said it will set up a special committee to scrutinise the NAICM project and ensure that it is managed transparently.
A recent change in GACM leadership (Federico Patiño Márquez replacing Miguel Ángel Nuñez Soto as CEO) led to speculation about disagreements over the management of the project, however, officials have dismissed these claims, stating that Patiño is the right chief executive for the commissioning stage.
Another potential threat is government budget cuts. Recent project cancellations – because of fiscal austerity and, in one case, worries about a conflict of interests – have raised concerns about the NAICM. According to US consultancy CG/LA Infrastructure, Mexico accounted for two of the five largest infrastructure project cancellations in Latin America of late, including the $4.3bn Mexico City-Querétaro high-speed train project and the $800m trans-peninsular railway project in the Yucatán Peninsula.
However, finance and public credit minister Luis Videgaray has said that the NAICM project will be ring-fenced. Meanwhile, President Peña Nieto has said he will personally monitor progress on the new airport and the Mexico City-Toluca passenger rail project, while Esparza recently announced that work had begun on 80% of the projects included in the national infrastructure plan. At a conference in June, Videgaray echoed this commitment to infrastructure spending: “The fact that we are faced with budget adjustments [in 2015] as well as  does not mean we must step back on infrastructure. On the contrary, Mexico is well placed to be one of the key drivers of infrastructure development in the region.”
The SCT has already secured around $3bn in loans to fund the airport project from a consortium of international banks, while the GACM is set to issue $1bn worth of bonds by the end of 2015 to help finance the build. The group is expected to use fees from the current airport to securitise the issue, according to local press reports. Further private finance would be a welcome complement to state spending. Carlos Méndez, vice-president of local construction company ICA, has suggested that public-private partnerships could open up other avenues of funding.
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