In April 2015 I wrote a post about the Modern Cities Project that Viktor Orbán came up with, most likely because Fidesz had lost a number of by-elections and had thus fallen short of its comfortable supermajority in parliament. It was time to offer all sorts of material incentives to larger Hungarian cities known as “megyei jogú városok,” which simply means that they also take care of the business of the counties in which they are situated, although not all of them are county seats.
Orbán began a roadshow, visiting city after city. At each place he visited he offered fabulous amounts of money for road construction and all sorts of other projects, many of them having something to do with sports. The most ambitious part of the plan was the modernization of the infrastructure of the entire country, which included converting all of the highways connecting these cities to “motorways” or superhighways. At the time the cost of the package was estimated to be 1,000-1,200 billion forints.
According to the latest estimate, the promise tsunami of the prime minister was much greater than originally estimated. Thus far he has visited only 13 cities of the 23, and 1,200-1,500 billion forints has already been pledged.
Valasz.hu has done an excellent job of collecting all the available data about the Modern Cities Project. Its reporters came to the conclusion that only 80 billion forints has actually arrived at the 13 municipalities. Considering that the deadline for the original plan was 2018, it is unlikely that many gift packages will be delivered to these cities anytime soon.
The latest piece of good news was announced on July 22. The government made some important decisions regarding much needed improvements on M1 and M7. Both are very busy roads on which traffic jams are frequent. M1, which is a two-lane “motorway,” will be widened between Budapest and Győr to become a three-lane road. The same thing will happen on M7 between Budapest and Balatonvilágos.
But a week later, on a Friday afternoon, came the surprise: the projects on M1 and M7 are off. Moreover, road construction around Veszprém was scrapped, as was the construction of a four-lane highway between Budapest and Kecskemét. The last was totally unexpected since only a month ago Mercedes announced plans to expand its factory in Kecskemét. The government has also reneged on promises for new or widened roads around Sopron, Szolnok, Békéscsaba, Ózd, Győr, and Esztergom.
Still, a fair number of projects remain on the books. According to a list provided by portfolio.hu, they are mostly construction projects on roads that connect Hungary with neighboring countries. These projects fall within the European Union’s so-called “Integrált Kölekedésfejlesztési Operatív Program” (IKOP), designed to facilitate efficient international travel through a network of roads across Europe. They can therefore be financed by the European Union. Roads promised to certain cities, however, like the ones around Veszprém, Sopron, or Kecskemét, that serve only local needs must be financed by the Hungarian government. And it is becoming increasingly evident, despite the Orbán government’s boastful comments to the contrary, that the state coffers are not exactly overflowing.
Scrapping the project to widen M1 and M7 may also mean that Viktor Orbán is reconsidering his dream of hosting the Olympic Games in 2024. This road construction was among the infrastructural changes deemed necessary for the feasibility study to be submitted to the International Olympic Committee. Next year’s World Aquatics Championship in Budapest, which the government agreed to host after Mexico changed its mind, has turned out to be a very expensive undertaking. The original cost estimate has already doubled, and we are nowhere near the end of all the necessary construction projects. Perhaps the growing price tag of the Aquatics Championship has tempered Orbán’s enthusiasm for the Olympics.
The media, which as far as I remember didn’t spend much time questioning the feasibility of the promises Viktor Orbán made during his road show, which lasted almost a year and a half, has now discovered that “Orbán’s promises about the future of modern cities were no more than a fairy tale.” A blog writer called the program “a gigantic hoax” because to the very last minute the waves of promises continued unabated when the government already knew that no money was available for the projects.
Indeed, Magyar Idők reported at the beginning of June that “the implementation of the Modern Cities Program” would begin soon and that it would be “the largest investment program of the century.” According to the mayor of Kaposvár, 452 billion forints has been put aside in the 2017 budget for the program. These investments will mean such robust economic development in the regions, counties, and cities that “in Hungary everybody will be able to work who wants to.”
What kind of governance is going on in Hungary where two major road construction projects are announced one day and a week later the decision is reversed? What could have happened during this week? The most obvious explanation is that it was discovered that there is simply not enough money for all the projects promised. But did the government really not know that on July 22? Perhaps one day we will have the answer. At the moment there is only bafflement.