This essay examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent. The suspension of policy-making within the Generalitat de Catalunya, following the region’s failed bid for independence, provided an almost unique opportunity to observe the strategic processes and limitations of the art of public competition. The optimistic finances of metro line 9/10 set the context, followed by analysis of the reactions of the city and metropolitan area of Barcelona to the Generalitat’s hiatus. That analysis exposes vast differences in the funding models of higher and lower tiers of Spanish government, which can be traced to the availability of externally-financed debt.
“Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya” is the third in a sequence of four essays titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The second explores the workings of the art of public competition using the example of interurban buses around Barcelona. The final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.
Beyond Line 9/10
Like many of Spain’s regional Autonomous Community governments, the Generalitat de Catalunya’s initial reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was to maintain many prior expenditure commitments by borrowing, with debts rapidly rising from a baseline of around 8% GDP to around 35% of GDP by 2014. Roughly half this borrowing now occurs through the nation of Spain, using a mechanism called the “Fons de Liquiditat Autonòmic” (Autonomous Liquidity Fund, FLA) which allows regional government to borrow on broadly similar terms as the parent country, and thus benefit from Eurozone rates, which in this period were close to 0%. FLA funds come at the cost of fiscal autonomy, since the autonomous community’s plans for debt reduction must be approved by the Spanish government. The other half of the debt is sourced directly, commonly from commercial banks, which in Spain have traditionally had a strong civic investment function. The biggest single debt within the Generalitat’s total is that of Ifercat, the Catalan agency tasked with new public transport infrastructure: 4 billion euros of debt, roughly 5% of the Generalitat total. Half Ifercat’s debt is owned by the European Investment Bank, a non-commercial EU institution.
Aside from a 45 million euro project to rejuvenate the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway, a line historically notable as the epitome of politicised infrastructure, Ifercat’s only practical project was Barcelona’s Line 9/10 metro route. Over-ambitious from the outset, both technically and financially, the “longest metro line in Europe” followed an all too familiar pattern of costs spiralling out of control in an environment of inadequate risk management. Ifercat pursued increasingly desperate funding mechanisms to keep their project alive in the face of the worst global financial crisis in a generation. Instead of using the private sector to mitigate construction risk, or using the private sector to deliver the desired transport system as a single build-and-operate concession, Ifercat sought short term liquidity simply to keep construction underway. And ultimately the money still ran out, leaving an incompete tunnel right in the middle of the route – a tunnel which is still inhabited by a pair of Tuneladores (TBMs) that haven’t moved since 2011. Such an incremental approach to funding inevitably led to poorly structured debt, notably creating many “hidden” liabilities, above and beyond the headline of 4 billion euros.
In 2014 Independents de Qui attributed Ifercat with another 1.8 billion euros of future guarantees to public companies, but that value transpires to be a fraction of the total additional liabilities: Between 2008 and 2010 batches of Line 9/10 metro stations were sold as 30-year concessions, typically to consortia of those companies building the stations, with the money raised by the sale ostensibly used to keep paying the builders to build those stations. The concessionaires levy an annual charge for providing and maintaining their stations – totalling around 250 million euros annually, an anticipated 7.6 billion euros in total. That figure seems infeasibly high, equivalent to the fare revenue of the entire Barcelona metro system. For context, in 2016 (including the first 10 months of passenger service to the airport) Line 9/10 conveyed just 4% of all metro passengers. The exceptional cost of these concessions is partly explained by concessionaires funding their initial purchases through commercial banking – the rates of such loans were inevitably less favourable than the Generalitat might have achieved itself, had it been able to raise the money through the FLA. This difference was accentuated by the political vacuum in the wake of the Catalan independence process: FLA finance reflected the overall stability of Spain, while the commercial loans of the concessionaires reflected the future ability of the Generalitat to pay the concession fees: Not only was the Generalitat less politically stable (and thus more risky) than Spain overall, but its Line 9/10 concessionary payments were somewhat less integral to the institution of the Generalitat, hence more risky, than Spanish bonds to the nation of Spain. Concessionaires consequently found themselves unable to refinance their debts, adding to the overall precariousness of the Line 9/10 finances.
Operator “Ferrocarril Metropolità de Barcelona”, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona’s (TMB) metro, also carries a significant burden – in so far as it clearly identifies in its accounts, 75 million euros annually for leasing trains and a further 53 million in Line 9/10 “fees”. The lease presumably includes all the 9000 Series trains built for Line 9/10, in spite of only 28 out of 55 trains currently operating there, so presumably only half of the lease cost should be apportioned to Line 9/10, giving a total of 90 million euros annually. As documented in Interurban Buses in Public Competition, TMB‘s budget is managed through ATM, which is funded from roughly equal parts fares revenue and government support, with about half of that government support coming from the Generalitat. Such accountancy primary serves to shift the Generalitat’s past capital budgetary excesses into the current revenue stream, and in the process makes TMB’s metro look far more dependant on government support than it would be if it hadn’t been saddled with Line 9/10. That arrangement surely serves wider political agendas, but as we shall highlight later, TMB metro’s dependency on the Generalitat is broader than just Line 9/10.
Belatedly Ifercat (as the Generalitat de Catalunya) has been reduced to barter, trading land with the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city government) to raise the money to complete a handful of stations on the Zona Franca branch. Line 9/10 was the final grand project of Jordi Pujol, who dominated Catalan politics through the “Olympic” Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. However, post-Crisis, the Pujol agenda of grandiose (“pharaonic”) Catalan ambition evolved into a quite different hope of Catalan Independence, and for Pujol’s successors Line 9/10 became a slightly unnerving ghost from the past – albeit one still pending the traditional Spanish political exorcism called the corruption trial. The post-Referendum political hiatus in the Parlament de Catalunya stalled even the fig leaf of a new bid to the European Investment Bank for another 750 million euros to complete the central section of the line. However judging by his subsequent media appearances the holder of that fig leaf, Ricard Font, who is a common thread between many government transport interests within Catalunya, was not idle following the Generalitat’s fall from grace in November 2017. And he was not alone.
Herein lay the shifting sands of post-Independència Catalunya, an administrative void hitherto controlled regionally by the Generalitat, suddenly contestable, perhaps for the first time since the 1970s. While it is convenient to categorise the exercise of power through discrete organs of state, it is common for leading individuals to serve in many organisations. Indeed it is common for such individuals to shift between political, administrative and academic functions throughout their careers, in a way that, for example, the British civil service would not tolerate. It is therefore more instructive to understand the role of these individuals as an extension of Catalan society. Catalunya’s administrative institutions strongly reflect Catalan society, not least because they require their staff to be able to communicate in Catalá – which is not widely spoken outside Catalunya, so (for better or worse) affords substantial protection. At its higher echelons, Catalan society is virtual – where being seen to, to be in control of, these are the rewards – a monetary salary is almost incidental. The longer the Generalitat remained paralysed, the less important its civil service positions became within Catalan society, regardless of whether wages continued to be paid. And thus perhaps without even analysing their motivation, senior individuals within the Generalitat logically sought somewhat similar roles through other institutions. Given the pre-existing tendencies to switch and accumulate roles, their search was perfectly intuitive. That starts to explain why this sequences of essays is subtitled the art of public competition: For what at first looks like a power battle between institutions is far more subtle, far more human – and that in turn makes it harder to analyse and understand from an external perspective, especially an objective one.