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EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written before it was brought out in public that Mexico, instead of planning two lanes of traffic south of the border over to El Chaparral, had figured out a way to get five lanes of traffic, albeit one of them for buses.
By David Gaddis Smith, MexicoPerspective
President Felipe Calderón, when he inaugurated new bridges over the Tijuana River as part of the El Chaparral port of entry expansion in Tijuana in January, made a special note to thank Mario Escobedo, president of Business Coordination Council in Tijuana. The president would do well to listen to Escobedo now as the Tijuana business leader warns the federal government not to close the Puerta Mexico southbound entry at San Ysidro when the El Chaparral port opens a few blocks to the west just south of Virginia Avenue. El Chaparral, where no building was beyond the foundation phase as of last week, is projected to open in October. Escobedo told the Madrugadores group in Tijuana last week that closing Puerta Mexico while the U.S. infrastructure feeding into El Chaparral is far from ready would be "catastrophic" and come at great cost to the border economy.
Calderón, understandably, wants the El Chaparral facility to open and be put to the use it was intended for before his term ends Dec. 1. But such an attempt to burnish his legacy could indeed tarnish it. The president needs to keep the option of also continuing to use the existing Puerta Mexico entry, because the United States does not plan to re-route Interstate 5 for a direct connection to the El Chaparral facility until 2016. Frontera newspaper reported Wednesday that Mexico's consul general in San Diego, Remedios Gómez Arnau, said the U.S. had denied a request from the Mexican Foreign Ministry to provide a temporary connection to El Chaparral. Mexico had requested that the United States open three SENTRI fast-pass lanes at Virginia Avenue and open a two-lane road the Border Patrol uses just north of the border fence. Mexico, at the same time, hoped to open two or more lanes just south of the border fence to move traffic to El Chaparral.
(Update, March 28: Mexico says it should be able to place five lanes south of the border fence.)
And as a recent quickly-put-together study by San Diego governments shows, this option and just about any other change to the existing structure could throw the southbound entry into chaos. Although the "San Ysidro LPOE Temporary Southbound Traffic Rerouting" study comes up with some nightmare scenarios bordering on the ridiculous (who, for example, would get into a traffic lineup on Interstate 5 backed up to the Coronado bridge?), its overall points are well taken. Any modifications to the existing structure before all the expansion projects are put into place have the potential to drastically increase southbound border wait times, whether they would be creating a bottleneck by a) moving traffic from I-5 to El Chaparral via jerry-built connections; b) Mexico doing checks on all vehicles beyond using its red light-green light system; or c) the United States doing checks on all vehicles. Even if El Chaparral and Puerta Mexico are both open, if Mexico or the U.S. decide to do additional checks, the border wait times are likely to increase significantly, the study says. Having traffic narrow from six lanes going into Mexico into a smaller number by turning at a sharp right angle, even if El Chaparral will have 22 lanes, could create a tremendous bottleneck and defeat Calderón's desire to have more Americans cross into Mexico.
Calderón has said he would like to open El Chaparral and have it stand alone. As he noted in his speech in January, El Chaparral's proposed inspection regime will allow Mexico an important, greater control over its territory, saying this greater attention will let Mexico avoid having people cross the border into Mexico as if they were just driving along Mexico City's ring road. Speaking of Puerta México in the past tense, Calderón said: "Guns, money and people passed through there, as did kidnapping victims who went from one side to the other. That's incredible."
But it could be incredibly bad to open El Chaparral and also permanently close Puerta Mexico this year, and to create other conditions that would cause even greater border bottlenecks. Opening El Chaparral while closing Puerta Mexico could be the classic case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, whether in an attempt to burnish the National Action Party president's legacy, to express dissatisfaction with the U.S. government's pace of building its border infrastructure, or prevent likely presidential winner Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party from inaugurating the facility. It would be far better to accomplish what needs to be accomplished on its own time to the benefit of Mexico and the border. The president would do well to remember that it was he who inaugurated a desalination facility in Los Cabos in 2007, even though it was a public works project that began under his predecessor, President Vicente Fox.
Update, March 22: Mexican and U.S. officials who met at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana said talks are ongoing to try to find a solution to the issue.
Update, March 25: Frontera reports that the U.S. consul in Tijuana, Steven Kashkett, said he is confident a satisfactory solution can be reached. Story, Frontera (PDF).
GSA drawing of what new border would look like adapted to highlight El Chaparral issues.
Left photo shows lanes used by Border Patrol that Mexico would like to see used to bring traffic to El Chaparral, which can be seen through an opening in the border fence. El Chaparral is right next to the Tijuana River. Right photo shows new bridge over the river from El Chaparral that heads toward the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road.
Defense Ministry sign announcing its construction work at El Chaparral construction site; Tijuana residents in right photo take a look at the work in progress. Below is a page from a San Diego-California government study showing one potential scenario for the area; the page below that shows a prediction that traffic could be backed up on I-5 all the way to the Coronado bridge if Mexico starts doing more rigorous vehicle inspections before the U.S. finishes its infrastructure.
Mexico's consul general in San Diego says U.S. denies Mexican request to provide temporary connection to El Chaparral. Story, Frontera (PDF).
Tijuana Business Coordination Council President Mario Escobedo says it would be catastrophic to close Puerta Mexico this year. Story, Frontera (PDF).
Update, April 13: San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition seeks immediate construction of pedestrian crossing to El Chaparral from Virginia Avenue, as the new southbound pedestrian crossing is not being built to handle all the southbound traffic.