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For Mexican Mayor, Road to Presidency Has Two Tiers

Transport: Official seeks to add an upper deck to the capital's expressways to cut gridlock. But he downplays the plan's potential political payoff.


MEXICO CITY — This Mexican capital has an open secret: Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to be the country's next president. But first he needs to tackle the traffic problem in this auto-choked metropolis before the 2006 elections.

This feisty politician has a plan though, albeit an expensive and controversial one making headlines here almost daily. He is rushing through a $900-million project that would add an upper deck above 18 miles of roadways in this city of nearly 20 million people.

The mayor unveiled in December the proposal to build a second tier on the Periferico and Viaducto expressways. Construction is expected to begin May 8. So far, the biggest opponents are federal officials, transit experts and urban planners, not ordinary Mexicans yearning for the day when they won't confuse a highway for a parking lot.

Good thing Lopez Obrador is not running for office in California, where many voters fear a repeat of the collapse of Oakland's Cypress Street Viaduct in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At recent public hearings on a proposed second tier on the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley, members of the public came out strongly opposed.

Unlike such nervous Americans, many Mexicans say they can overlook the fear of earthquakes and other problems if only traffic rolls. The city's two expressways were built in the 1950s and '60s, and vehicles travel 7 mph on average during rush hour, government studies show.

"We should have already built the second level and be talking about how to get a third level on. We need to get traffic moving," said resident Miguel Camacho, a 53-year-old civil engineer who has watched Mexico City's chaotic growth over recent decades.

The project can reduce traffic, improve air quality and boost the economy, says the mayor, who sought to downplay its potential role in his presidential aspirations.

"Many people think this is a very important project and that it could help a mayor in 2006," he said at a recent news conference. "Just let us work. The election is not our purpose. This is what the city needs, and we are going to do it."

The mayor, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, gained national attention when he lost the 1994 Tabasco state gubernatorial election amid charges of fraud against his opponent. A talented public speaker, Lopez Obrador continues to make a mark by promoting programs that help niche communities, analysts say.

The double-deck project resonates with many voters. When the mayor asked them to call a toll-free number and give their opinion, 80,000 heeded and 72% said to pop on the second tier.

Middle-Class Appeal

But almost everyone--from analysts to taxi drivers to political opponents--says Lopez Obrador is using the road project to court Mexico City's middle-class residents, who more often vote for the center-right National Action Party of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Federico Estevez, a professor here at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico, said Lopez Obrador is "showing people that he is interested in a mega-project with a distribution of benefits. . . . How many politicians in this country can say they have pushed a project that is seen positively by the people, the masses? Very few."

The proposal comes after Lopez Obrador and Fox sparred on several issues, including who should be Mexico City's police chief, whether the capital should forgo daylight saving time and how the capital should combat crime. The federal government opposed the second tier.

"The federal government is opposed, but it is more for political reasons," explained Claudia Sheinbaum, the environmental secretary for the city's federal district, who serves as Lopez Obrador's spokeswoman on the two-tier plan. "If the mayor can do a high-profile project that is so important . . . it will give him great visibility."

Environment Secretary Victor Lichtinger said the national government is studying whether it can stop the plan, arguing that other projects, such as a light-rail system or expansion of the subways, would be better investments.

"When there are scarce resources, projects with the greatest impact should be chosen," Lichtinger said. "There is a greater need for more public transportation. This will just increase the use of personal vehicles."

People who study transportation, smog and earthquakes also have doubts, believing that Lopez Obrador is moving too fast.

Robert W. Poole, transportation studies director at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, said a similar project in California would take as long as 10 years to complete. Lopez Obrador is promising that the first five miles of the Mexico City roadway will be finished in less than 10 months.

Although earthquakes downed two-tier roads in San Francisco in 1989 and in Kobe, Japan, in 1995, some Mexicans seem confident. Sheinbaum and several earthquake specialists said that if certain standards are applied, motorists have nothing to fear.

Air Pollution Concerns

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