Mayan Trains fast track raising concerns in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Maps, renderings and charts paper the walls of a government conference room. They lay out in detail the plans for a rail line that could be Mexico’s biggest infrastructure project in a century.President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has put the multibillion-dollar Mayan Train project on a fast track. He says it will provide an economic boon for the poor communities of Mexico’s long neglected southeast by bringing in more tourists and the hotels, restaurants and other businesses needed to serve them.Yet, among the papers on that wall at Mexico’s tourism development agency is a chart showing that the Mayan Train is being pursued at a pace that outside observers say could threaten its feasibility, the environment and the people the president wants to help.The chart in the Fonatur offices outlines planning, contracting and building times for 45 recent train projects in Canada, Australia, Britain and France. Those projects, which do not approach the Mayan Train’s length, averaged seven to 10 years to complete.And there’s the rub: López Obrador is limited to a single six-year term and wants the trains running before he leaves office Dec. 1, 2024. The chart says the nearly 950 miles (1,525 kilometres) of the Mayan Train will be finished in 4.8 years, with nearly all of the time savings coming from the planning and contracting phases.“Yes, we’ve skipped some steps, but we are forced to by the circumstances of the political terms,” said Rogelio Jiménez Pons, director of Fonatur who says government planners are also working with international experts and the United Nations. “It’s a six-year term, so if you don’t get at least a year of operation for the project it’s at serious risk.”López Obrador himself underlined that point by making one of his first presidential acts the cancelling of a partially built $13 billion new airport for Mexico City that was begun by his predecessor.The Mayan Train would circle the Yucatan Peninsula and drop a spur south to near the border with Guatemala. It would serve tourists and workers at Cancun and the glistening resorts of the Riviera Maya, but also haul cargo.López Obrador says the project will fulfil his dream of helping the people of the southeast and will display a new brand of inclusive development and respect for the environment. “Not a single tree will be felled,” the president has said — a promise that strains credulity for a project that is intended to travel through jungle, even if it is along existing right of way.An immediate question for many is whether planning and executing a megaproject can really be carried out so quickly. And what about its projected cost of $6.3 billion to $7.9 billion (120 billion to 150 billion pesos)?The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a public policy think-tank , published a study last month predicting the cost would come in at four times that — $25.3 billion (480 billion pesos).Its report also urged not to rush the project without careful planning.“There aren’t serious cost-benefit analysis studies, nor a study about demand, nor a serious study of bids that will really have a projection of this train,” said Ana Thaís Martínez, a researcher who wrote the study.She also noted that Mexico’s other recent rail project, a 36-mile (58-kilometre) commuter line between Mexico City and Toluca, is already 90% over its initial $2 billion budget and remains unfinished after more than six years of construction. It was supposed to be completed by 2017.Jiménez Pons, the Mayan Train’s point man, said the government will pay only about 10% of the project’s cost, while the private sector picks up the rest through what will essentially be costly contracts to operate the train service. Development around each of the line’s 15 proposed stations would be overseen by Fonatur, but by using real estate investment trusts the land would remain in the hands of property owners, essentially making them partners.The train’s cargo hauling service is to be its most important source of revenue, while passenger ticket prices are expected to be subsidized, Jiménez Pons said. Martinez’s report noted that running passenger and freight trains on the same line is complicated, and it suggested the government’s expectations for cargo revenue could be overly optimistic.There are also concerns about the environmental impact. New track would be laid through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized area of wide biological diversity that is Mexico’s largest tropical jungle and home to important pre-Hispanic archaeological ruins. And the region is perforated by underground rivers and caverns.A Fonatur presentation based on a preliminary environmental study in the state of Campeche obtained by The Associated Press highlighted potential “critical impacts” on wildlife during construction of track, stations and associated tourism infrastructure. Some effects could be mitigated, but they would require careful study, it said.So far, people in the areas that would be affected say they have received little information about the project and its impact, even as land speculation surges around them. Jiménez Pons promises that all of the required environmental impact studies and public consultations with indigenous communities will be completed.Jiménez Pons has known López Obrador for decades and says the president has been thinking about this train for many years as a way to benefit the southeast.“This isn’t a whim, an imposition or because Mexico’s president is from the southeast,” López Obrador said in December at an indigenous ceremony in Palenque where he sought Mother Earth’s blessing for the project. “Above all it’s an act of justice, because it’s been the most abandoned region, and now the southeast’s hour has arrived.”Einar Jesús Medina Borges has been shuttling tourists around the colonial gem of Merida in a horse-drawn carriage since he was a teenager. The train sounds good to Medina, who heads the local carriage drivers’ union, because it could bring more tourists to his inland city. Still, he has concerns.“What we also have in mind is what ecological impact is this project going to have?” Medina said. “The people in charge of all this need to make sure it causes the least ecological damage, ecological impact, possible.”Another concern is not so much the train itself, but the tourist infrastructure that would be developed around proposed stations, especially one that would serve the Calakmul reserve. If government projections prove true, bringing 3 million annual visitors to an area that has only about 30,000 residents today would be a mammoth change.“The project has major ecological implications and the design has to change and the magnitude has to change so nothing serious happens,” said Jorge Benítez, an ecologist who has studied the reserve for years and published a paper on the potential impact of the train. He has joined a technical advisory board to the project and says officials have so far been receptive to his concerns and have even heeded calls to include the construction of wildlife corridors over the rail line.Jiménez Pons said environmental impact statements are beginning for areas, including Calakmul, where there are no existing railways — about half the proposed route. But the time pressure looms.“We’re racing the clock, but it’s possible,” he said.___Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Merida contributed to this report.Christopher Sherman, The Associated Press read more

Explosion at supermarket in southern Austria injures 9

BERLIN — Authorities say nine people have been injured in an explosion at a supermarket in southern Austria.The Austria Press Agency reported that the blast Monday at the supermarket in St. Jodok am Brenner, between Innsbruck and the Italian border, set off a fire. The local rescue service said no one sustained life-threatening injuries.The Tiroler Tageszeitung newspaper said initial reports indicate that a worker may have drilled into a gas pipe.The Associated Press

Liberals revive bill to cut auto insurance rates and curb towing costs

by Maria Babbage, The Canadian Press Posted Jul 15, 2014 12:06 pm MDT AddThis Sharing ButtonsShare to TwitterTwitterShare to FacebookFacebookShare to RedditRedditShare to 電子郵件Email TORONTO – Ontario’s governing Liberals insist they can still reach their target of cutting auto insurance rates by an average of 15 per cent across the province, even though they’re only a third of the way there with just a year to go.Rates have dropped an average of 5.44 per cent since the government started to take measures aimed at combating insurance fraud last year, Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Tuesday.He acknowledged that recent filings showed the provincial regulator approved rate changes over the past three months that resulted in an overall 0.22 per increase, with one company receiving approval for a 4.19 per cent hike.“There are some companies that have already priced themselves below market and now they’re trying to figure out how to best compete,” Sousa said.About a dozen companies have reduced their rates by over 10 per cent since the government started addressing the issue, he said. More should follow once a bill aimed at tackling insurance fraud and inflated towing costs passes in the legislature, helping the government reach its goal by August 2015.“We’re taking every action necessary to try to meet that target and we recognize that in order to do so, we have to pass the legislation as soon as possible,” Sousa said.His advice for drivers who keep seeing their premiums go up? Shop around.“It’s up to consumers to choose the best possible rate that they can get,” he said.The Liberals introduced two bills in the spring dealing with auto insurance and towing rules, but they were scrapped when the June 12 election was called.Sousa’s merging them into a single bill that’s all but certain to pass since the Liberals now have a majority of seats in the legislature.Among other measures, it would move the dispute resolution system for injured drivers from Ontario’s insurance regulator to an existing tribunal run by the Ministry of the Attorney General, which he says will help resolve disputes more quickly.It also proposes more oversight of the billing practices of health clinics and allow only licensed service providers to be paid directly by insurers. Insurance agents or adjusters who abuse the system could also see their licences suspended immediately.There are measures to cut down on the amount of time vehicles can be stored after an accident, so owners and insurers won’t be squeezed for more money.The proposed law would also force tow truck operators to register their vehicles, get permission from a driver before charging for towing and storage services, post their prices and provide itemized invoices detailing all charges.Sousa may claim that fraud is at the root of high premiums, but insurers are still racking up record profits, said NDP critic Jagmeet Singh.The Liberals are “bending over backwards” to cut costs for insurance companies, rather than pressing ahead to reduce insurance rates for consumers, he said.“This is a gift to the insurance companies, this is a way of reducing their costs once again but there’s absolutely no guarantee that this will result in a reduction in rates for drivers,” he said.Sousa said rates would have gone down further if the opposition parties, who collectively had a majority of seats in the legislature, had allowed the legislation to pass before the election was called.The Progressive Conservatives say they’re cautiously supportive of the measures, but that Sousa is looking for a scapegoat.“Look, they have nobody to blame but themselves,” said Tory finance critic Vic Fedeli.“Quite frankly, these guys look for any excuse to pass blame on every single issue … it’s always somebody else’s fault.” Liberals revive bill to cut auto insurance rates and curb towing costs read more

Amid steady rise in rhino poaching and elephant killings UN urges action

Through the new resolution, the Assembly expressed serious concern over the steady rise in the level of rhino poaching and the alarmingly high levels of killings of elephants in Africa, which threaten those species with local extinction and, in some cases, with global extinction.“Illegal wildlife trafficking not only threatens species and ecosystems; it affects the livelihoods of local communities and diminishes touristic attractions. It compromises efforts towards poverty eradication and the achievement of sustainable development,” said Assembly President Sam Kutesa in remarks read by Vice-President Denis Antoine.Adopting a consensus text resolution, the 193-Member body encouraged Governments to adopt effective measures to prevent and counter the serious problem of crimes such as illicit trafficking in wildlife and wildlife products, including flora and fauna and poaching.The resolution suggests “strengthening the legislation necessary for the prevention, investigation and prosecution of such illegal trade, as well as strengthening enforcement and criminal justice responses, acknowledging that the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime can provide valuable technical assistance in this regard.”The General Assembly also calls upon Member States to make illicit trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora involving organized criminal groups a “serious crime.”Member States are equally encouraged to harmonize their judicial, legal and administrative regulations to support the exchange of evidence, as well as to establish “national-level inter-agency wildlife crime task forces.”“The adoption of this resolution today and its effective implementation will be crucial in our collective efforts to combat illicit trafficking in wildlife worldwide,” adds the President’s statement. read more