A leading source for news and analysis about Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican border.
By David Gaddis Smith
For decades, motorists and pedestrians have been able to cross the border into Mexico at San Ysidro without having to face a permanent southbound U.S. inspection.
That appears likely to change when the new San Ysidro port facility opens, if not before. The more than $600 million facility is currently on target to open in 2016 "if we get all the funding," said Ramon Riesgo (left) of the General Services Administration.
The number of southbound lanes from Interstates 5 and 805 is to increase from six to 16, all likely with U.S. inspection booths. Mexico's El Chaparral inspection facility is to have 19 booths. The number of northbound lanes is to increase from the present 24 to a minimum of 32. Thirty of those will have tandem booths — two booths per lane — "so that will be the equivalent of like having 50 lanes," said Riesgo, the GSA Border Stations Project director for Region 9.
He said, "All booths will be intelligent booths," which he said ideally will speed up crossings. A previous attempt by Congress to have an inspection of all southbound vehicles was scuttled in part because of the tremendous traffic delays it was going to cause.
An artist's representation of the new crossing (from the GSA website) is at right.
Riesgo spoke at a forum held Friday by the Border Transportation Council, a business group that is trying to prevent unlicensed or uninsured vehicles known as "wildcatters" from transporting border crossers to points north.
Riesgo said a border crossing facility for southbound and northbound pedestrians will have flexible lanes, so that if pedestrian traffic is heavier going one way than the other, the numbers of lanes going southbound or northbound can be adjusted accordingly.
He said there will be a tripling of pedestrian crossings; two will be southbound, one northbound. He said the government hopes to open the new southbound pedestrian crossing to the east by September 2012.
Bill Figge, (left) the deputy district director of planning for Caltrans District 11, said the state Route 905 project carrying traffic from the Otay Mesa border crossing to Interstates 805 and 5 continues to move forward. "All of us were happy to see the first phase of it open last fall," he said. That section goes from Siempre Viva Road to Britannia Boulevard.
He said the rest of the freeway, from Britannia Boulevard to Interstate 805, is expected to open in the summer of 2012.
"We also had a ground breaking earlier this week (Tuesday, April 5) for the improvements at the 805/905 interchange," he said. Figge said federal stimulus funding is being "put to work there to widen the connection between the 905 and the 805 so that when we finish the freeway there, there won't be a bottleneck there."
Figge said the widening was "one of the only few projects in California that received funding in that particular stimulus category."
A representative of the de la Fuente business group complained that the La Media Road and Airway Road intersection south of 905 construction has been prone to flooding. Figge said Caltrans had been investigating the matter but found that its work was not responsible. State Sen. Juan Vargas also said he had driven his Jeep across the area when water was high but also found the flooding unrelated to Caltrans work.
Figge also gave an update on the Otay Mesa East project, where border crossers at a proposed new facility east of the Otay Mesa crossing would pay a fee to cross the border, ideally to be able to cross the border more quickly. He said if a traffic and revenue study shows the project to be feasible and the private financing is there, the project could open in the winter of 2014-2015.
One woman who spoke at the forum who was frustrated at the pace of infrastructure improvements said, "Trust me, I'll pay 2 bucks to cross faster" (at the Otay Mesa East facility).
As the forum went on, the Border Transportation Council had a running slide show of buses that had crashed in the United States, sending the message that wildcatters illegally transporting passengers from the border to points north could be involved in an accident causing a major loss of life.
Juan Vargas, (right) the former San Diego city councilman elected to state senate in a hotly fought race in November, said it was unfair that businesses that play by the rules, getting permits, licenses and buying insurance, suffer because wildcatters yelling "Vamos a Los Angeles" to potential passengers don't abide by those regulations.
Vargas said that there needed to be a level playing field and that he wanted to see the California Public Utilities Commission get more involved in getting rogue operators off the road. "I think it is incumbent upon the CPUC to do the job," he said.
San Diego Councilman David Alvarez (left) said that if the community is demanding the curtailment of wildcatting, then more money and officers should be allocated to get results.
Jim Abele, the California Highway Patrol's Border Division chief, said the CHP does not want any vehicles on the road that should not be and will continue to subject commercial vehicles at the border to its inspection regime. "We inspect everybody," he said.
Efrain Ibarra of the South County Economic Development Council complained that the "Welcome to California" sign at the border was ugly and that the area needed beautification.
Vargas said that in these difficult economic times, which he said were probably the worst "since the Great Depression," that will be difficult. "The state is not going to be producing a whole lot of funds for beautification at this moment. It doesn't have it.... We're cutting schools, we're cutting colleges and poor people very deeply and to put money into beautification is something that does not fall into those critical categories," Vargas said.
Still, Vargas was most positive about San Ysidro, at one point exclaiming, "¡Viva San Ysidro!"
Riesgo said the new San Ysidro crossing has been designated a "design excellence project" that goes "beyond typical construction."
He said the project was to receive an extra 6% in funding to provide items such as benches, shade, art, water fountains and bathrooms.
""Pedestrians will have a more dignified entry to U.S. and a more pleasant experience," said Riesgo, pointing out, among other things, that pedestrians will have wider corridors and art to look at while they wait. An artists' representation of what the new pedestrian facility might look like is at right.
He warned, however, that the crossing "is a law-enforcement facility" and that law-enforcement needs could have a negative impact on aesthetics.
He also said the new facility will have dynamic message boards to be able to change messages quickly, saying the current border signage was antiquated.
There are three different phases to the project.
Phase One is fully funded.
Phase 2 and Phase 3 are not funded.
Riesgo said the GSA will go to Congress this year for Phase 2 funding and plans to go to Congress next year for Phase 3 funding "to initiate construction in 2014."