Lisbon airport expansion will bring 50 million visitors a year

Years of procrastination were brought to a halt last Tuesday when the government signed a €1.3 billion expansion deal with ANA airports authority that paves the way to the country receiving up to 50 million tourists per year.

Prime minister António Costa said the decision has been delayed for decades at a cost to the country that is unquantifiable.

To the critics who claim the logistics of upgrading Montijo Air Force base as an adjunct to the capital’s Humberto Delgado are all wrong and will only provide a short-term fix to seasonal gridlock, he said: “I am not discussing whether this decision is wrong or right, it is the decision.”

A bit like the British government’s presentation of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the Montijo solution is being rolled out as ‘the only deal, the best deal, there will be no other deal’.

So, what does the government say it will mean? In the long term, the phased operation should double the number of visitors to this country – bringing arrivals by completion up to 50 million every year, say reports.

The futuristic transformation at Montijo will create 10,000 new jobs and be ready to start taking passenger jets – if everything goes according to plan – from 2022.

The big issue, however, is “if everything goes according to plan”.

Montijo is only one of 17 locations that have been suggested for Lisbon’s airport expansion feasibility, and it happens also to be alongside a marshland that is an important feeding ground for migratory birds.

As such environmentalists like Zero, the association for a sustainable earth, believe the plan requires a strategic environmental impact study before it can be passed.

The government has succeeded in bypassing Zero’s ‘demands’ but it hasn’t been able to dodge the requirement for a standard environmental impact study (EIA).

Such a study was compiled by ANA last year and vetoed by a parliamentary evaluations committee on the basis that it was “confused, generic and full of deficiencies”.

A new EIA is underway but won’t be ready for evaluation before March.

How can this second study ‘persuade’ the committee that a marshland area full of birds is the right place for a runway used by 38 planes per hour?

This should be the ‘big issue’, but in what has been described as a “frantic election year”, the question seems to have been ‘sorted behind the scenes’.

For the benefit of a dubious public, planning and infrastructure minster Pedro Marques has said, ‘hand on heart’, that absolutely no works will start before the EIA has been delivered and deemed favourable.

As for the people of Montijo, feelings are pretty much 50/50, suggests Expresso. There are those who feel the increased movement back and forth across the Tejo will be good for business, and those who believe the expansion will only push the cost of living in Montijo up even further.

For an area, however, that has seen industry decline and businesses shut, the promise of 10,000 jobs is a bright one, and this is how the government hopes to ‘sell the deal’.

Speaking in Montijo last Tuesday as the memorandum of understanding was signed with ANA airports authority in the presence of its French owners Vinci, Lisbon mayor Fernando Medina said the expansion will “resolve one of the principal problems of economic development in this country”.

It is a “structural decision” and possibly the first project to “give shape to a city of Lisbon on both sides of the river Tejo”, he said.

ANA CEO Thierry Ligonnière used the moment to stress that ANA is hoping for “rapid answers in the next 36 months to respond to the (new) airline services” – meaning transport links cannot fail.

Transport links, however, are a major concern.

Says Observador: “Access by road will involve negotiation with Lusoponte, the concession holder for bridges over the Tejo in which Vinci also holds shares. The government has agreed to the creation of a lane dedicated to buses but without compromising the current three lanes. But the focus for public transport will be on reinforcement of river transport between Seixalinho (on the south side) to Cais de Sodré (on the north) to be served by a shuttle service from the terminal. River transport in peak hours will run every 20 minutes.”

It’s a sweeping paragraph to describe millions of euros worth of investment that haven’t yet left the drawing board.

For civil engineers, the whole plan is shambolic, dressed up in electioneering hype.

Former head of the national laboratory of civil engineering, Carlos Matias Ramos, maintains the Montijo solution will have reached capacity by 2035 at unacceptable costs to local communities (particularly in terms of noise which will exceed limits imposed by law) when alternatives of military bases at Alcochete or Alverca would be “far more suitable”.

SIC television interviewed Ramos and fellow professional José Furtado earlier this week, stressing the alternatives they favour have been presented to the government “but Montijo was the place chosen” (as prime minister Costa was at pains to say) despite the fact that the results of the second EIA “could change everything”.

Signature day protest

Hidden away in all the stories were allegations that the hugely-publicised flurry of signatures was all about ‘satisfying big business’.

Little space was given to the 50 or so members of the Civic Platform ‘Aeroporto BA6-Montijo Não!’ who told reporters that if there had been a contest to find the worst place to site Lisbon’s new airport, “Montijo would have won for every reason”.

Leading the fury, José Encarnação stressed Vinci wanted Montijo and thus ‘that was that’, while Rui Garcia, the CDU mayor of local town Moita (likely to suffer high levels of noise pollution), predicted the country “will pay dearly” for this decision.

“It will have grave impacts on the environment and potential development of the Tejo estuary which could be a strong factor in attracting tourism, leisure and sport as a way of preserving the environmental nature of this metropolitan area,” he said – agreeing with criticism that Montijo’s usefulness as an extension to Humberto Delgado will “quickly run out of time”.