Mexican Politics and Transportation Planning

I realize that I am neither a political theorist nor a Mexican, which not only exacerbates my lack of experience with the Mexican political system, but probably makes anything I say that much more controversial, as well.  Yet, at some point, given my background in transportation, I should probably say something about transportation planning in Mexico, especially in recognition of Earth Day… a topic which invariably brings me to politics.

Take Linea 12, for example, which is the new metro line being built* between Mixcoac (directly south of the city center) and Tláhuac (south east).  By all accounts, the sheer size of Mexico City and the current horrendous level of automobile traffic mean that additional transit, and on a large scale, is probably a very good idea.  

However, it’s also safe to say that despite the possible benefits to the city, there is a strong political motive for the new line, as evidenced by the timing of the project’s announcement (just after the election of the new mayor, Marcelo Ebrard), the proposed completion date (just in time for the next mayoral election), and the massive advertising campaign that is being conducted by the mayor’s political party, the PRD (el Partido de la Revolución Democrática), regarding the new line.  Of course, since the mayor can’t run again — Mexican politicians can only serve one six-year term in any post — it is a question as to whether he or the party benefits more.

Mexico City currently features many political ads, like this one for the PRD.

Mexico City currently features many political ads, like this one for the PRD.

 

The key question is, of course, is Linea 12 a good idea?  Before you get in a huff, I am just going to say: I don’t know.  I don’t know because I haven’t personally seen the plans or the methodology for evaluating ridership and economic benefits of the plan.  I also don’t know because I don’t know if the existing system for making transportation decisions is geared towards making decisions for the right reasons.  Mexico City’s experience with previous transportation projects seems to suggest that the results are mixed:

  • The previous mayor, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, pushed through a desperately-needed expansion of periférico, the highway that rings the city.  Although it has dramatically reduced travel times, the highway lacks sufficient pedestrian crossings and adequate on and off ramps for vehicles and the second level now towers over many neighborhoods, much like the hated, former central artery in Boston (also known as the project that was replaced by the uber-expensive and technically challenging “Big Dig”).  It also has yet to be seen what happens when an inevitable second expansion is required.
  • The openings of both metrobús lines have coincided with political promises, even though both lines were not yet ready for passengers (such as the construction at Tepalcates I discussed back in December) and planning for both lines has seemed rushed and under-delivered from a passenger perspective, with advertised “transfers” requiring passengers to walk several blocks and the lack of additional lanes to facilitate express bus service.
  • The construction of Terminal 2 at the airport, which was targeted for completion in time for the 2006 political elections, has, undoubtedly, a nice terminal and adds passenger capacity, but doesn’t solve the major problem at Mexico City’s airport, which is a lack of runway capacity.  (In fact, with the placement of the new terminal, it makes additional runway expansion impossible.)  The new terminal also boasts a tram to connect terminals (“the tram to nowhere?”) that is available for connecting passengers only… even though its outside of security.  By my estimates, the taxis that run between the two terminals ferry more passengers than the tram.

So, yes, I am being nit-picky.  In each of these cases (and others), the added infrastructure is beneficial and has helped the lives of many in Mexico City.  However, in each case, the projects were either rushed into service or rushed through the design process; and in each case, the results have underperformed what they could have been.  So back to the question of Linea 12…  Was the project selected for its long-term benefits or because it’s proposed completion date is 2011?  Is the completion date reasonable or was it chosen for political reasons?  Is Linea 12, as planned, a good idea?  Probably, but given the history it’s hard for me to know how good.

The real question, though, is: why does transportation planning in Mexico City work the way that it does?  My bet is that it has something to do with one-term limit applied to all politicians, but I don’t have any anecdotes to back up this claim.  We’ll see. 

Oh, and as for that * up above…. I can’t actually say that Linea 12 is actually being built.  I mean, somebody has to pay for it, right?

 

México, D.F.

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