A leading source for news and analysis about Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican border.
By David Gaddis Smith, MexicoPerspective
Four of the five new connecting lanes from the U.S. border to the new El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana will be just 10 feet wide, a Baja California state official told the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. The fifth lane, for bus traffic, will be 12 feet wide.
The U.S. interstate system generally uses 12-foot-wide lanes. But top infrastructure and urban development agency official Carlos López (left) said Mexican planners believe the connecting lanes will work fine and will serve to slow traffic down for the trip from the end of Interstate 5 to the new crossing beginning Nov. 1. A relatively sharp curve connecting Interstate 5 to the new lanes also will help slow traffic. (Many city street traffic lanes are only 10 feet wide; 12-foot lanes are needed for buses.)
Although the number of lanes going into Mexico from the United States is being reduced by one and the lanes will be narrower and drivers will have to negotiate the curve, Mexican planners say they believe that wait times to get into Mexico at rush hour will actually be reduced because the number of lanes will fan out to up to 22 inspection booths once traffic enters the El Chaparral facility. The current Puerta México crossing fans out to only 11 lanes. (Click on picture to see larger image).
López said planners expect maximum waits of 29 minutes and a line of traffic a kilometer long at peak crossing times, half the hourlong crossing time that sometimes takes place now. He said a study on the issue conducted by Mexican and U.S. officials should be released in the coming days.
Still, studies show that having narrower lanes often results in more sideswipe accidents, which then could slow traffic, particularly in an enclosed area. It was unclear how much of a shoulder there would be between the far-right lane and the border fence and the far-left lane and a large cinderblock wall, and how much the closed-in feeling that those walls create might affect drivers' spatial judgment.
The new port of entry and associated projects are being built at a cost of 900 million pesos ($67 million); El Chaparral is several hundred yards to the west of the current Puerta México border crossing. Crews are working furiously to complete El Chaparral, which is bounded to the west by the Tijuana River where it enters the United States and to the north by Virginia Avenue and the Las Américas premium outlets in San Ysidro.
López said the five "provisional" new lanes are to be built to a 30-year standard, but with the hope that the permanent U.S. connection to El Chaparral will be constructed in the coming years, making the five Mexican lanes along the border superfluous. The lanes are being built between the U.S. border fence and another parallel Mexican wall just south of the border fence (as seen in picture at left).
The permanent U.S. connection to El Chaparral is not scheduled to be finished until 2016, and has not yet been funded. It comes under Phase 3 of the General Service Administration's multimillion dollar plan to improve the San Ysidro border crossing.
Once all the projects on both sides of the border are finished and have proper connections, San Diego and Tijuana should have an impressive, state-of-the-art border crossing.
On Nov. 1, once traffic starts moving through El Chaparral, drivers will have four nearby connections to the rest of Tijuana. One bridge will take traffic over the river to the road to Playas to Tijuana and the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road; a second bridge will take traffic over the river to downtown; a third bridge will take traffic over the river to the Vía Rápida freeway headed east toward Tecate and Mexicali; and a fourth connection will take traffic into the area leading to City Hall on the east side of the river.
Photo: The five-lane connector to El Chaparral will be built between this wall and gate and the border fence on the other side of the pickup truck.
The current southbound pedestrian crossing to the west of I-5 will be closed in the coming months to make way for the construction of the five lanes to connect I-5 with El Chaparral. Southbound pedestrians will use a new crossing being built to the east of I-5 behind the Old Customs House. Mexico is constructing a new building to handle the pedestrian traffic. While López indicated the Mexican side of the crossing should be ready for business in October, the new building may not be finished until next year.
Update, Sept. 24: Mexico has remodeled a next-door building to be used temporarily as as crossing point until the new building is finished.
Mexico also plans to build a new, modern-looking east-west pedestrian bridge over the northbound lanes of traffic headed to the United States. That bridge would connect the new southbound pedestrian crossing building to a new pedestrian plaza to be called Plaza Bicentenario, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Mexico's 1810 cry for independence from Spain. The plaza will take over land now being used for parking. López said Mexico also is planning to build safe walking corridors that provide shade for pedestrians to get to transportation connections. He said there are hopes that, working with private enterprise, an intermodal transportation center and a building with offices and shops will be built close to the new southbound pedestrian crossing to the east of I-5.
There eventually will be northbound and southbound pedestrian crossings at El Chaparral, López said. Mexico will have its part of the pedestrian crossing finished by Nov. 1, López said; it is unclear when it will be able to connect to the U.S. side. The pedestrian walkway at El Chaparral will be along the river.
Chamber executive Jason Wells gave an update on the San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition's effort to have the GSA build a pedestrian connection this year from Virginia Avenue to El Chaparral. Many would like to see a pedestrian crossing at El Chaparral as soon as possible in order to relieve pressure on the new pedestrian crossing to the east of I-5, which was not built to handle all the foot (and, it appears, bicycle) traffic it now is going to bear. Wells said the U.S. southbound pedestrian crossing at El Chaparral is not scheduled to be built until 2015 as GSA did not want to pay for all of it and the city of San Diego said it did not have money to help out.
Wells said he hoped that next week's trip of San Diego and Tijuana movers and shakers to Washington can help get more action on the border crossing. The trip is sponsored by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Photo: A worker paints metalwork at El Chaparral.
López said a technical meeting dealing between U.S. and Mexican officials on the border crossing project is held every Thursday. He hoped that U.S. funding could be freed up for the permanent I-5 connector to El Chaparral as soon as possible. He said he also hoped that U.S. authorities would permit the pickup and dropoff of handicapped people near its entrance for the new pedestrian crossing east of I-5.
Many residents of the Colonia Federal between the current Puerta México crossing and the new El Chaparral crossing said they had not been contacted or informed about the project by Mexican officials, as would have been required by law on the U.S. side. López said they did not need to be informed because the new connection is not going through their property; the lanes are being built behind an existing wall just south of the U.S. border fence. However, the connection will generate traffic noise and pollution in their neighborhood. There will be at least one noise reduction for Colonia Federal residents: the metal bars that clang on the pedestrian turnstiles to the west of I-5 will stop clattering once that crossing is closed.
López said studies showed that the new connection will actually reduce pollution — if Mexico actually is able to reduce southbound border wait times.
Grupo Beta facilities in the corridor where the five new lanes are to be built had to be removed. Colonia Federal residents said people keep coming into the neighborhood looking for Grupo Beta only to find it has been relocated. Grupo Beta helps rescue migrants who find themselvers in precarious situations at the border.
Mexicans whom the U.S. deports long crossed at the current southbound pedestrian crossing. However, because that crossing is going to be eliminated, the deportees are now being crossed at the Otay Mesa port of entry. López said that once El Chaparral opens, those being deported will be crossed at that facility.
Earlier this year, reacting to fears that the temporary connection to El Chaparral would cause unconscionable wait times and damage Tijuana's economy, Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante and Baja California Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán said the current Puerta México crossing would not be closed when El Chaparral opened. However, it appears that the current crossing indeed will be closed. López used a bit of semantics in addressing the issue Thursday. "Puerta México is not being closed, it is being moved," he said. Some attending the chamber meeting expressed concern that the delays will be much longer than Mexican officials anticipate. López did indicate that Mexican authorities do have a Plan B in case bottlenecks turn out to be far greater than they expected. That Plan B would seemingly have to include the possibility of sometimes opening the current Puerta México site to get traffic moving into Tijuana.
Photo: crews are hard at work finishing El Chaparral
A major issue for border-crossing times also could be U.S. inspections, which often are major factors in backing up traffic entering Mexico. When Customs and Border Patrol decides to inspect southbound vehicles, it often reduces the number of southbound lanes, creating a bottleneck.
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Here's hoping that all the fears about extensive wait times turn out like the Y2K fears that computers around the world would crash when the year 2000 came around. Chaos did not occur on Jan. 1, 2000. Will it occur on Nov. 1, 2012, or at some later point? Time will tell.
Story on Mexico's grand plans for El Chaparral and the border, Frontera (PDF). It says four lanes will carry traffic to El Chaparral, when there actually will be five. Second page.
August: Deportees now being crossed at Otay Mesa port of entry.
July: Tax Administration Service spokesman says El Chaparral to be ready for business in October.
June: Foreign Ministry official tells U-T San Diego that Puerta México will close when El Chaparral opens.
May: GSA presentation to San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
May: GSA presentation to Sandag.
May: Baja California governor, federal transportation minister say Puerta México will not close in October when new El Chaparral port of entry opens
April: San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition seeks new pedestrian crossing, roundabout at Virginia Avenue.
April: Story on new eastern pedestrian crossing.
March: Analysis of the problems the new border crossing may pose.