MEXICO CITY â Mexicoâs president-elect AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador said Monday that he would cancel construction of an expensive new airport in the capital after voters rejected it in an informal voting procedure involving a small fraction of the population.
The decision to scrap the airport, a $13 billion project that is one-third complete, met with swift protests from Mexicoâs business community, which warned that the cancellation could threaten the countryâs economic stability by sending a message that investments may not be guaranteed under the LÃ³pez Obrador administration.
It also raised questions among investors about how much Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador, a leftist, will be guided by pragmatism and how much will he give in to his populist instincts after he takes office on Dec. 1.
Citing the results of an unofficial vote organized by allies of his own party, in which fewer than two percent of Mexicoâs eligible voters participated, Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador said that his government would instead build two new runways at an air base north of the city to absorb the rising demand that has saturated the existing airport.
âThe decision that the citizens have taken is rational, democratic and efficient,â Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador said.
But as he has done throughout his campaign and the transition, Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador walked a fine line between satisfying his supporters and attempting to reassure investors concerned that his tenure will lead to runaway spending and capricious decision making.
âFrom the beginning of the analysis on this issue, we have made it clear that companiesâ and investorsâ interests will be safe,â he told reporters.
During the five-month transition period since his July election, Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador has bumped up against reality on several of his signature promises. He has walked back his pledge to take soldiers fighting the drug war off the streets and scaled back his ambitions to revive Mexicoâs lagging oil production.
Although he briefly suggested that the new airport could be paid for with private money, Mr. Lopez Obrador has largely held fast to his promise to cancel it and find an alternative.
The giant new airport, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is rising on the dry bed of Texcoco Lake east of the city. It was intended by the government of outgoing President Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto to replace Mexico Cityâs existing airport, which experts say is outdated and cramped.
It was to be Mr. PeÃ±a Nietoâs signature public work, a new hub for the Americas and a portal to Asia and Europe. But Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador has long questioned its expense and whether the contracts were awarded transparently.
Environmental groups have also raised concerns about the impact of the new airport, set on a barren expanse that absorbs water runoff during the cityâs intense rainy season. The outgoing administration said that it would build holding ponds and drainage pipes to prevent flooding, but did not announce the details until this May, almost four years after Mr. PeÃ±a Nieto announced the project.
The government-run group building the new airport said Monday that it would continue construction until the current administrationâs tenure ends on Nov. 30.
Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador had said that he wanted to let the people decide whether to go forward with the airport project.
But the hastily organized vote was far from an official referendum. The dispersed polling places were staffed by volunteers from Mr. LÃ³pez Obradorâs party. Reporters noted that there were no checks to prevent people from voting multiple times.
When the results were announced late Sunday, Mr. Lopez Obradorâs spokesman, JesÃºs RamÃrez, said the irregularities did not affect the final tally. Some 70 percent of voters chose the option to build two runways at the Santa LucÃa air base instead of building a new airport.
Juan Francisco Torres Landa, managing partner in Mexico City for Hogan Lovells, a law firm that represents contractors among its clients, said the cancellation sent a message to investors that Mexicans are âunreliable.â
âWhy would you spend the time and resourcesâ to participate in complex bids if at the end of the day that project will be canceled anyway?â he asked. Mexicoâs standing âgoes into flames.â
Jorge del Castillo, deputy Mexico manager for Mitsubishi UFJ, a Japan-based bank, said that the use of the public vote to justify the cancellation raised the possibility that Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador would resort to similar votes to support other contentious decisions.
âThe concern is if thatâs the way heâs operating going forward, that is very dangerous,â Mr. Del Castillo said. The bank comanaged a credit facility for the new airport but has since been repaid.
Although Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador had been somewhat conciliatory with the financial community until recently, Mr. Del Castillo said that his tone was changing. Interpreting the president-electâs comments on Monday morning, Mr. del Castillo said the message was, ââGet used to it, because that is the way we will be doing things.ââ
Technical experts say that Mexico Cityâs location, surrounded by mountains, constrains the available sites for a new airport and the aircraftsâ flight paths. They say that the proposed alternative would support only a limited number of flights and would soon be surpassed by demand.
In an Oct. 18 memo, Bernardo Lisker, the international director of Mitre, a consultancy that reviewed the site of the new Texcoco airport, warned that the coexistence of the current airport and a second one at Santa LucÃa, where the runways would be added to an air base, had yet to be addressed by a âserious aeronautic study.â He added that âthe risks are clear and present.â
He also explained that it would be a mistake to compare Mexico City with New York or London â cities with multiple airports. The memo, which is cited by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, was addressed to Mr. LÃ³pez Obradorâs chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, who has been his liaison with international investors as well as with the outgoing and the incoming transport ministers.
Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador said Monday that the French government had promised its support for a study that would show the viability of operating the two airports at the same time.
The president-elect added that his plan, which also involves upgrading an existing airport in the city of Toluca, some 40 miles away, would save Mexican billions of dollars by preserving the investment in the existing airport and adding new capacity.
But a study by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness argued that canceling the new airport would cost the government some $6 billion â with nothing to show for it.
The Mexican peso fell Monday after Mr. LÃ³pez Obradorâs announcement, in its sharpest one-day drop since the election of President Trump two years ago.
The decision to not build the new airport in Mexicoâs capital would most benefit Houston, with its international airport, said Mr. Torres Landa.
âThey will be the big winner,â he said. âThatâs where you will make all the connections from Mexico to anywhere in the world.â