Mexican president defends costly pet building projects

MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lashed out Monday at audits of some of his pet infrastructure projects by the country’s equivalent of the congressional office of management and budget.

The office said López Obrador had underestimated by billions of dollars the cost of cancelling his predecessor’s project to build a new Mexico City airport on a former lakebed.

The auditing office said the cost of cancelling construction contracts and paying off bonds backing the project could reach $14.5 billion, compared to López Obrador’s estimate of $4.5 billion.

López Obrador said Monday the audit was “exaggerated.”

“Their data are wrong, I have other facts,” López Obrador said.

Instead of continuing the partly built airport at the east-side suburb of Texcoco, on which at least $2 billion was spent, the president decided to refurbish and expand a military airfield at the Santa Lucia Airbase further north of the capital.

Though the new project is projected to cost $4.1 billion, López Obrador had claimed it represented a cost savings even considering losses from canceling the Texcoco airport.

López Obrador claims the cancelled airport could have cost as much as $15 billion when finished, and would have been subject to flooding and sinking because of the water-logged soil.

Opposition congresswoman Verónica Juárez Piña of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said “Instead of attacking the ASF (auditing office), he should clear up the irregularities, waste and lack of transparency in the use of government money in practically all areas of his administration, especially for his mega-projects.”

The president has ordered ambitious building projects like a new Gulf coast refinery and a $6.8 billion project to construct a train line that would run some 950 miles (about 1,500 kilometers) in a rough loop around the Yucatan peninsula, connecting beach resorts with Maya ruin sites.

Critics say that few of those projects had appropriate feasibility or environmental impacts studies, and they could become white elephants.

The audit report presented over the weekend also contained harsh criticism of the Maya train project, which is being overseen by the government Fonatur tourism agency and will be run by the army once it is completed in several years.

The audit found that Fonatur “did not demonstrate that it had an operating project or a financial model that would identify the financing plan” for the train.