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Opinion
Liébano Sáenz
Liébano Sáenz For a Healthy Political Agreement The institutional or public indifference over the environment brings about unfortunate effects that, in the end, are more costly than prevention
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Coexistence in megacities imposes additional responsibilities to those presented elsewhere. Because of their population density, Mexico City and its metropolitan area demand extraordinary mechanisms of public investment and coordination between agencies and levels of government. A bad decision, encouraged by partisan reasons, such as changing the Hoy No Circula program, negatively affected air quality in the Valley of Mexico. The consequence of this had a great scope. An extraordinary corrective measure generated more effects than the modified scheme and even transcended to the federal government. President Enrique Peña Nieto asked Rafael Pacchiano, head of the Natural Resources and Environmental Secretariat (Semarnat), to collaborate with State of Mexico and Mexico City authorities in order to implement a measure of immediate attention to overcome the problem.

Coordination between states is complex, not because of partisan political differences, but because of legal and financial considerations. Mexico City is a place with privileges and advantages, when compared with neighboring states. Among the most obvious advantages is the spending made by state regarding education and health, two of the areas with higher budgetary impact. We should also consider that Mexico City’s debt is national, not local. In addition, starting 2013, a capital fund was allocated to Mexico City, a sort of compensation for hosting the central government and powers. This year, the fund includes a sum of 4 billion pesos ($229.8 million). In other words, these circumstances make Mexico City the richest “state” in the country, the one with the highest income, but also the only one that doesn’t spend on education or health. And this situation will not change during its institutional transformation.

Because of these circumstances, and considering the disparate status of conurbations, it is difficult for the neighboring states to standardize conditions, at least with regard to a number of metropolitan programs. The states that comprise the megalopolis are Mexico City, the State of Mexico, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Morelos and Puebla. The capital and its suburbs in the State of Mexico face the same reality, although, as we noted above, with different legal and financial circumstances. In the rest of the State of Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, it would be excessive to standardize determinations in their territories and with their inhabitants. For example, the implementation of the Hoy No Circula vehicle restriction program is only justified in areas with air quality problems, so it is not acceptable that the population is affected only because their are neighbors to the polluted areas. Yes, it is clear that subjecting all vehicles in Mexico City and the metropolitan area to verification programs and vehicular restriction is an unavoidable necessity. Therefore, the exception is unacceptable, even that of federal vehicles, and the homogenous vehicle inspection regime for all states becomes a necessity.

The emerging program to improve air quality in the Valley of Mexico is an achievement. Governments of different partisan backgrounds have taken actions that, while difficult, are likely to be effective when addressing the emergency. The return to the original scheme to restrict the movement of all vehicles will improve air quality but affect 20 percent of the vehicle fleet. More than 1,000,000 vehicles will stop transit for one day, which will involve an overwhelming demand for the current public transportation system.

As it is widely recognized, it is urgent that we strengthen public transportation, encourage private investment in green vehicles and increase bicycle use, steps that are being taken in other modern cites throughout the world.

The reality is that when faced with the magnitude of the problem, investments in public transportation have been enough. A lot has been done, but not everything necessary. Limiting the use of automobiles implies improvement and increases the coverage and quality of options for public transport. In this sense, we need to reconsider investments in public transportation in the metropolitan area, including Metro, bus and commuter train services.

I don’t agree with those who criticize public investments to improve roadways, mostly when those who use them are put in charge of the finances. In any case, it would be questionable that the expense be paid for with public funds that could be used for public transportation. The fundamental mission is to increase public investment in transportation in its two main areas: roadway infrastructure that favors vehicle fluidity and a public transportation network that integrates and brings together the megalopolis.

Taxes are unpopular and sometimes unjust or counterproductive to well-being or to the economy. However, one should consider the obligation to set aside the gasoline income for urban and suburban public transportation finances. The structural solution to the air pollution problem has to do with automobile usage and the insufficient public transport system. To fix it would require a physical and budgetary strategy that imposes higher fines to those who contaminate and that allows the use of resources to solve the insufficiency of urban services.

From a democratic and good government perspective, it is exemplary that in a few days the authorities of states involved and the federal government have defined an emerging mechanism that surely will give good results. The step is unpopular and will surely affect millions of people because of the insufficiency of public transportation. Also in the long run, it could have negative affects, among them being the increase of vehicles if public transportation services don’t improve. Because of this, a consensus should be reached that resolves the background problem and that is also useful for the rest of the states of the country. The environmental problem doesn’t only imply environmental responsibility. It is also a question of public health. The institutional or public indifference over this issue brings about unfortunate effects that, in the end, are more costly than prevention. The Valley of Mexico should serve as a lesson for the rest of the country. Learning it will, without a doubt, be the best way to opportunely and sufficiently confront the tremendous and threatening environmental challenge.

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