As Portugal’s new prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho prepares to take over as the country’s chief of damage limitation, ambitious plans originally conceived by ex-PM José Sócrates to revamp Lisbon’s transport infrastructure are in danger of being scrapped.
A new bike-hire scheme and ambitious plans for charging stations for electric cars had been signed off, but the centrepiece was an €8.3bn high-speed rail network that would link the Portuguese capital to Porto in just over an hour and to Madrid in two hours 45 minutes. Siemens had signed a deal with a Lisbon science and technology taskforce to research applied aerodynamics at high speed “in anticipation of Portugal becoming a rail leader”.
The network, however, is now on semi-permanent hiatus, with some economists encouraging the new PM to disregard it for good. The obvious argument against the plans is that the funds would be better saved or used elsewhere. But many experts argue that if Lisbon is to thrive it needs better connections, both inside and outside its borders. Carlos Fernandes, a researcher at Rede Ferroviária de Alta Velocidade, says, “This network will not only reduce Portugal’s ‘peripheral’ status on the Iberian peninsula; cities such as Evora, Aveiro and Coimbra will also finally get high-quality connections to the Greater Lisbon area, integrating the regional economy.” The increased mobility will be needed sooner or later, he argues, for Lisbon’s ports and logistics infrastructure – crucial on a national level – to remain competitive.
The Spanish government has already warned Lisbon about backing out of the cross-Iberian line, which has already eaten up EU funds in the first phase of construction. A commercial relationship between the two countries can get back on track if the line – planned to also reach interior hubs on both sides of the border – gets completed on time.
The city also needs to make the most of its status as a gateway to a 250m-strong Lusophone market. Another postponement – of the long-planned new airport at Alcochete – could damage the prospects associated with this crucial demographic that, according to AICEP Portugal, generates an annual GDP of €1.6bn. National carrier TAP has increased flights to Brazil, and Angolan airline TAAG has recently launched flights to the country.
The new prime minister has a massive job on his hands – high unemployment, a large deficit and a €78bn bailout from the IMF to work out how to pay back. Investing in expensive transport projects may sound like a luxury, but Portugal arguably needs it more than ever.