02/06/2021

We must seize opportunities

4 min
A plane flying over El Prat airport.

It was interesting to see the restructuring of the Government, which has integrated digital and territorial policies into a single ministry, responsible for investment in information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures and the more conventional transport of people and goods. It offers a great opportunity to improve some of the policies in this area and the method of making infrastructure policy.

Let's start with the most important thing: the method. The Government will not be wallowing in riches in the coming years, no matter how much emphasis it places on EU recovery funds. This makes it more important to prioritise investments. It would be desirable that the allocation of resources to projects, whether for ICT or conventional infrastructures, be treated in their entirety. And we know that ICT investments have generated much higher social returns than conventional investments, which have often resulted in negative social returns. Now there is a good opportunity to prioritise investments in ICT with resources which would not have been available had the merge not taken place. We must take advantage of it, accompanied by more stringent requirements in the evaluation and selection of conventional infrastructure projects in order to avoid mistakes of the past.

In addition to investment, the Government faces challenges in matters that are not strictly within its competence, but on which it must define its position. The one that is arousing most expectation right now is the question of El Prat airport's runways (either the management of the northern runway or the extension of the third runway) and the subsequent extension of terminal space (which does not make much sense without an intervention on the runways). The reform involves environmental conflicts (acoustic impact on the northern runway, while the third runway affects the Ricarda pond, which is protected).

This is the conflict on which the Government must take a position, starting with the definition of the problem: do the limitations of operations at peak hours (business flights and potential connections) harm opportunities for quality economic activity in Catalonia? If the answer is no, then there is no problem; then there is no need for action.

If the answer is yes, then action is needed. First of all, we must not trick ourselves with the idea of a satellite terminal 100 km away, connected by infrastructure and high-speed express service. This does not exist anywhere in the world. Not even in Tokyo, with 38.5 million inhabitants (the closest case, between Narita and Haneda, and not even then). We add that, even if it were to be done (and there is nothing impossible here), in addition to a negligible use, it would cause environmental damage and emissions: there would be as many or more flights, and also additional ground travel between airports, which would increase the trip's environmental footprint. It makes no sense at all.

The decision on the benefits and costs of reforming El Prat must have a technical basis, but ultimately it must be a social decision. Specifically, it must be based on the social assessment (other than the price) of the benefits, damages and potential mitigating actions. However, the social valuation must be clear and explicit. In this case, one must bear in mind the episode of Alguaire airport: a technically and socially incorrect decision (to build a commercial airport) was associated with the decision not to extend the facilities of Alfés in order to preserve a colony of Dupont larks in Timoneda. This implied an increase in expenditure of several tens of millions of euros in a new investment in Alguaire. Even so, the lark colony left in 2005 (it might be rebuilding now), even before the start of works in Alguaire.

I reiterate: the social valuation is not strictly a technical or financial issue, as it includes other valuations related to the effects of the intervention. That said, the decision process needs to be clear in terms of costs required or revenues foregone for the alternative courses of action (including non-intervention). Anything else would be inexcusable in a country where the perception is so widespread - and justifiably so - that public and social services are insufficient due to lack of resources, unemployment is too high and salaries are too low. It would be desirable to apply this process in El Prat.

Another issue on which the Government has to take a clear position is that of the resources to maintain toll-free motorways. The problem is relevant, and the option defended by the Government since 2017 is not the best. A flat rate (the vignette) does not reflect the cost of maintenance nor the negative environmental externality of traffic. Increased fuel taxes and direct tolls would better serve road safety and environmental goals. And, in fact, the reform of the EU directive on road pricing foresees a ban on the introduction of new infrastructure charges for light vehicles from its entry into force (if it ever comes into force!). There is no need to go against the flow.

Other issues are also important, and demand a position from the Government. The most important as an environmental problem in Catalonia is the concentration of emissions of microparticles and nitrogen oxide caused mainly by road traffic in Barcelona. We know quite well that the establishment of a congestion charge for access to the city centre is the most effective mechanism for reducing the flow of vehicles, pacifying traffic and avoiding premature deaths due to respiratory diseases. We will come back to these and other problems, because they fall squarely within the scope of the Government's actions, whether its own or in cooperation with other governments.

Germà Bel is an economist

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