Jose Aguirre makes sure to get in line at the northbound San Ysidro border crossing no later than 3 a.m. He lives in Tijuana and works for a construction company in San Diego. If he gets to the line after 4 a.m., he'll be late for his 7 a.m. shift. Five days a week (and sometimes on Sundays) he listens to Christian rock as he inches his car up the road toward the crossing, waiting, waiting—waiting.
Aguirre has been waiting on the line for five years, and he's seen it get worse. The state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) estimates that the number of cars crossing the border has increased 80 percent in the last 10 years. That growth, combined with post-9/11, time-consuming border checks have sent wait times skyrocketing into the two- or three-hour range at peak times. Even pedestrians often spend an hour or more waiting in line along the cement walkway that leads to the U.S. Customs checkpoints.
Between the delay in shipping goods, the endless wait to get back into the country and lost sleep, a lot of people and businesses have decided to give up on making border crossing a way of life. In a 2006 study, along with a 2007 update, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) found that San Diego loses $6 billion and 56,000 jobs every year as a result of the long waits. The news sent shockwaves through the local business community. The need for improvements pushed city and state officials to devise a way to rebuild much of the San Ysidro crossing, but local leaders didn't believe that would do enough. Instead, they dusted off a 10-year-old plan for a third border crossing to be built on 100 acres of land east of the existing Otay Mesa crossing. Known variously as Otay 2 or Otay Mesa East, the project has surged forward in recent months, leaping bureaucratic and financial obstacles along the way. Politicians at all levels of government and business leaders are pulling together with rare unanimity to make the crossing a reality.
It was shortly after the SANDAG study was released that the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce stepped up their lobbying efforts in Washington.
“The amount of money you lose, when you've got two- to three-hour border waits, is pretty big,” said Scott Ellerby, a vice president for the San Diego chamber. “We want to do what we can to help it happen. We've put our efforts where our collective mouths are.”
To that end, Ellerby went to Washington to meet with Rep. Bob Filner, who represents the border region, and Rep. James Oberstar, who heads the House Transportation Committee, Members of both the San Diego and Otay Mesa chambers have met with SANDAG, Caltrans, Customs and Border Protection and the Government Services Administration (GSA), the legal landlord of all border crossings. They've also met with Mexican officials to make sure they, too, make improvements.
And their work is bearing fruit. In order to get a border crossing, there will need to be approvals from both President George W. Bush and President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. The application is under review by the U.S. State Department, perhaps facilitated by a recent letter from California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein requesting an expedited process. Representatives have attended many of the meetings related to the project, GSA spokesman Ramon Riesga said, so the agency will be able to issue approvals faster, and it's nearly finished with a feasibility study that will help determine whether the crossing will be for commerce only or commerce and regular people.
In an unusual move—though not unheard of—Caltrans has already completed the first of two required environmental studies for State Route 11, which would link from the 905/125 interchange to the crossing. Caltrans project leader Mark Baza said the studies are typically done at the same time, but developers in the region wanted to know the layout of the road so they know where they can consider building.
Two developers recently bought property along the proposed SR-11 route in the last couple of years in anticipation of a new border crossing. Paragon Properties bought 110 acres, and Kearny Real Estate Company owns 360 acres along the proposed State Route 11. John Bragg, from Kearny Real Estate, said the company bought the land last year knowing the third crossing was likley to happen, though the company owns several properties in Otay Mesa, so 'we might have bought it anyway.'
To fund the project, Caltrans and SANDAG have already secured $75 million from state transportation bonds approved by voters in 2006, but that's just seed money. To generate the $700 million estimated cost of the project, SANDAG will make Route 11 a toll road. Though the border crossing itself will technically be free, the only way in or out—on either side of the border—will be to pay a toll. The Mexican government will have a similar set-up, and the plan is to pool the money into a single account dedicated to the Otay 2 crossing.
State Sen. Denise Ducheney has introduced a bill to grant SANDAG tolling authority on the road leading to and from the port of entry (the amount of the toll hasn't yet been determined).
SANDAG executive director Gary Gallegos told CityBeat that the toll would be the lynchpin to funding the whole $700 million expense of the project. SANDAG would use the income from the toll as security to sell bonds to fund construction. The toll would also be used to fund the operating expenses of the crossing as well as pay to “overstaff the crossing,” he said, and keep lanes open 24 hours a day.
No level of government has the money to build such a project without a toll, Gallegos said.
But some people worry about the fairness of a toll at a border crossing.
“There are some people out here who don't have the $2.25 for the trolley, let alone paying a toll when they drive,” said Valentino Marques, a 50-year-old who crosses regularly to see a doctor in the U.S.
A good point, comments Rep. Filner.
“Why does the bureaucracy respond when there's business asking?” he said. “They're motivated when people who can afford it get an efficient border. But the people who can't don't count.”
Filner has been asking for years to make technological improvements to the existing ports of entry. He'd like to see a fast-pass system like the one used on California highways that doesn't even require cars to stop. He's convinced that the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection, prefers an inefficient border because it creates the appearance of security. He'd like to fund more officers at the entries to keep lanes open longer. It's not that he opposes Otay 2 so much as he worries that it will divert attention from San Ysidro and Otay 1.“I think they're putting their energy in the wrong spot,” he said. “It's the Cinderella effect. Whenever a new program comes along, it works for a couple of years, because everyone gets energy, so that thing works, but everything else goes to hell.”
Meantime, the project is indeed leaping bureaucratic hurdles in tall bounds. Most people CityBeat interviewed anticipated getting a presidential signature no later than this summer, and possibly as soon as May. Gallegos has laid out a construction timetable that shows completion by 2014, before even all phases of the proposed San Ysidro expansion are complete.