It's time to unite the threads of two issues that I have posted about before on several occasions; Madrid's appalling pollution problems and the mega project to bury the M-30 ring road that has become the defining act of Alberto Ruiz Gallardón during his time as Mayor of the city. On the pollution issue a report in El País this week more or less confirmed what we already knew - Madrid continues to exceed the legally permitted maximum levels of emissions of nitrogen dioxide with all the effects this has for the health of the city's residents.
The overshoot of the contamination limits comes despite the city administration having had what they obviously thought was a very clever plan to sort out the problem; that of moving the measuring machines from zones with high readings to ones with much lower measurements like the Casa de Campo. This fraudulent trick did have the effect of achieving what looks like quite an impressive reduction in emissions between 2009 and 2010, but was still not enough to bring the city within the limits. The result is that the official figures are a significant underestimate of the real situation.
The difference now is that the maximum limit has changed from being a recommendation to being a European requirement. So does Madrid have a new master plan to make the city safer for those who breathe the air? It does indeed, the master plan is to ask for a moratorium in the application of the new legislation. Not because Madrid's rulers need more time for their extensive traffic reduction plans to take effect, they don't have any. The failure of the machine moving ploy to deliver the goods effectively leaves them with no ideas on complying with the law, so we are left with what will be a series of delaying tactics.
Which brings us to the M-30. I was walking down by the river last Sunday in the relatively warm sunshine we had a week ago. It was very pleasant to walk along the now pedestrianised banks of the river Manzanares. However, any idea that by burying the ring road the city has also managed to bury the problem of traffic pollution was soon dispelled by the sight of a familiar haze in the distance. It's important to remember that what many choose to see as an environmental project was in reality a road widening scheme, and a characteristic feature of new or wider roads is that they encourage yet more drivers to take their cars out.
People were not just walking or cycling by the river last Sunday. Men were working there too, planting regimented ranks of anaemic looking trees to replace some of the healthy adult specimens that were chopped down years ago at the beginning of the vast project. People working at weekends on municipal projects is a sure sign of impending elections, and there will undoubtedly be intense pressure for everything to be left at least superficially finished in time for Gallardón to run his re-election campaign in May.
What many voters may not be aware of is that the 'environmental' part of the project has been largely paid for by the national government, through the much maligned Plan E and its successor. It's unlikely that Gallardón will want to remind anyone of this at election time, but his administration has been effectively bankrupted by the crisis and the huge debt left over from the road-widening and pollution increasing part of the project.
Don't get me wrong, I think it's good that the river is a place where can people can walk or cycle without roaring traffic. I just take issue with those who regard this project as some great visionary work. "Visionary" would have been deciding that Madrid would benefit from not having a multi-lane ring road running through the interior of the city, and a fraction of the huge cost of the project could have been much more usefully spent on traffic reduction and diversion. Oh, and as a side effect it might just have been possible for Madrid to comply with pollution laws.
Instead we got more traffic, more contamination and a debt that will reduce the level of public services offered in the city for a generation. We are already seeing the start of the big sell off, as properties that were acquired with the intention of providing social facilities in areas that don't have them are instead being put up for sale. This after the city has spent a fortune on keeping them empty for years whilst the money got spent on the big road. Cuts will take place in all kinds of services over the next few years, as the city pleads with Brussels that it hasn't been given time to come up with any ideas to keep its citizens healthy.