Rob Hixson, a commercial real-estate agent, flies out of Tijuana's airport all the time, and he's sick of the hassle.
“It's a pain,” he said. “Getting there, you can take a cab right through, but coming back, the taxi drops you off at the border with your bags, you have to go through customs separately, then the cab picks you up again.”
Sometimes, it can take an hour or more to get through customs, but passengers have little choice if they want to go to most places in Mexico. The only Mexican destinations served by San Diego's Lindbergh Field are Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City.
All of which is why Hixson was eager to help facilitate the $34-million sale of 52 acres of prime Otay Mesa industrial land to a consortium of Mexican and American business people who hope to help build a cross-border airport terminal to access Tijuana's Gen. Abelardo L. Rodriguez Airport. By short-circuiting the usual border crossings with a direct-access tunnel or terminal, officials hope to provide new options for San Diegans looking to fly to Mexico while pumping more cash into Tijuana.
But the land for the terminal, a plan 10 years in the making, had to be secured quickly to prevent it from being taken over by other development. The Mexicans in the purchasing group are already shareholders and board members of Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico (GAP), the company that runs Mexico's 12 largest airports. The Americans are Equity Group International (EGI), one of the primary investment vehicles of Sam Zell, billionaire real-estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, among other things.
EGI spokesperson Terry Holt said Zell has “been encouraged to proceed with our planning by regional officials and agencies, and we are committed to continue working closely with them.”
From Hixson's perspective, Zell's participation adds credibility to the whole project.
“Those are some smart guys,” Hixson said.
The lot they've selected is considered “finished” in development terms: Roads have been built to provide access, and the infrastructure is in place for water, sewage and electricity. The land sits directly across from the Tijuana airport, so close that anyone standing among the brown scrub can watch airplanes taxi to the runway and then take off.
The land sold for $15 a square foot, the top end of the range for the area. Hixson said he had a list of prospective buyers interested in purchasing it in smaller chunks at higher prices, but the sellers preferred to move the parcel all at once.
If the terminal gets built, the Tijuana airport would be the first airport in the Western Hemisphere that crosses a national border and only the third in the world to do so (the other two straddle Switzerland and France). Keith Wilschetz, the San Diego Regional Airport Authority's director for airport system planning, said the actual project could take on any number of different forms. On one extreme, they might just build a parking lot and a covered walkway directly into Tijuana's airport terminal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Authority would build an entire terminal, complete with ticketing, baggage claim and gates for the aircraft. The planes would then taxi across the border to use Tijuana's runway.
That's one of the major advantages of Tijuana's airport—the runway. Stretching a full 1,000 feet longer than Lindbergh's, the airstrip can handle the jumbo jetliners that leap the Pacific Ocean in a single bound. Already, Tijuana serves Tokyo direct, and soon it will add Shanghai. The airport also has no curfew, so jets can land or take off at any time of day or night, and it serves many, many more Mexican destinations than does Lindbergh.
But before anything is built, the whole idea will have to undergo a series of feasibility, economic and engineering studies. Consultants told the Airport Authority in February 2007 that although there are significant obstacles, “none are insurmountable.” The Authority promptly commissioned a new study to assess whether anyone would actually use the terminal if it were built.
“We're waiting for the results to be unveiled,” said Cindy Gompper-Graves, CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, a business group that strongly supports the terminal idea.
CityBeat got an early look at those the results, which will be publicly available at the Airport Authority's June 5 meeting. According to the study, by 2030, total annual border crossings are projected to be 3.7 million. With a new airport terminal, that figure jumps to 6.9 million.
“The numbers are not overwhelming either way,” Wilschetz said. “They're not overwhelmingly large; they're not overwhelmingly small.”
Wilschetz said the study found that people already familiar with Tijuana and Mexico would be the most likely to use the cross-border terminal, as would young people.
While building the airport crossing would nearly double total border crossings, it actually wouldn't do much to relieve overcrowding at Lindbergh. By 2030, San Diego's major airport will be handling an estimated 30 million passengers, Wilschetz said. The extra 3 million or so people who might be using the Tijuana airport only represent 10 percent of Lindbergh's load.
“This would have no impact on what we need to do at Lindbergh Field,” he said.
Wilschetz has already presented these figures to the Airport Authority's Executive Committee, but he won't present the completed report to the full board until the June meeting.
Meanwhile, Enrique Valle, who manages Tijuana's airport for GAP, said “an executive study” on feasibility on the Mexico side is being conducted. He said there's plenty of room for an expansion of the airport, but he's concerned about the effect on traffic.
“With this project, as you know, we have to work on the congestion,” Valle said.
In April, Valle met with members of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and Mexico's federal secretary of commerce to discuss the details of the project. The Mexican government already sent a letter of support to the Airport Authority last year.
Other bureaucratic wheels are turning as well: The chamber met in Washington in October to discuss the idea with State Department officials, and the city of San Diego has written the terminal into a draft update of its Otay Mesa Community Plan.
No one thinks a terminal will be built in the near future—Wilschetz said it would be “years and years” before all the diplomatic hurdles were cleared—but there's fresh optimism surrounding the project. As Scott Alevy, an executive with the Chamber of Commerce, put it: “This idea is out of the box.” Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.