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The General Services Administration will decide next month whether it will try to build a new connection off Interstate 5 that would link to Mexico's new El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, or whether it will let Mexico build the connection all by itself on Mexican soil. It appears that the GSA has firm plans to build a new southbound pedestrian connection to El Chaparral at Virginia Avenue in San Ysidro, as well as a traffic roundabout there, GSA Senior Asset Manager Anthony Kleppe told the San Diego Association of Governments Borders Committee on Friday.
Mexico has been going full steam ahead on the new port of entry about 500 meters to the west of I-5 even though the U.S. government does not plan to reroute the interstate to El Chaparral until 2016. Mexico plans to open the facility in October. The timing of the El Chaparral opening has been controversial on both sides of the border; many Tijuana business and government officials fear that the new curve will slow traffic to the point that people will curtail their visits to Tijuana.
At right: Work goes on at El Chaparral, as seen from U.S. side of border (bergelectric is on the U.S. side of the border fence).
Kleppe said that if the plans for a new curve and southbound pedestrian crossing are approved first by regional GSA authorities and then by Congress, the projects likely would be completed sometime around the middle of next year. According to a slide Kleppe presented at the meeting (seen below), the curve would go through the old I-5 pedestrian bridge structure to the west of the interstate; that structure has been replaced last year by a pedestrian bridge over I-5 a little to the north.
He said, "Mexico's project is going to be done much earlier than we will be able to implement the interim connection, and it's going to be critical that we have a good plan to allow Mexico to open their facility in the light that there is going to be a delay before our project could be completed pending the availability of funds."
Kleppe said that although Mexico plans to open El Chaparral in October, a little more than a month before President Felipe Calderón leaves office, "The timing we've heard of their hard schedule is February."
Kleppe said Mexico has planned five lanes on the south side of the border fence along Avenida Internacional, four of the lanes for passenger vehicles and one dedicated to buses. He said it would be ideal for there to be five passenger vehicle lanes and said the GSA is concerned about emergency vehicle access to the proposed connector. I-5 south at the border is six lanes.
He said the GSA did a traffic study in March and an engineering study in April to figure out the best way to get vehicle traffic to El Chaparral, which lies against the Tijuana River. He said two options were being studied:
• For the U.S. to build a curve "rated for 20 miles an hour" to connect with Avenida Internacional in Tijuana and then to El Chaparral.
• For Mexico to build a curve on its own territory. (This option might involve tearing down a Mexican building or buildings.)
Either option would entail shutting down the current southbound pedestrian crossing to the west of I-5 because the new curve to the right off I-5 south will run over the pedestrian crossing. Although another southbound pedestrian crossing is being built to the east of I-5 behind the old Customs House (it is to be finished in September and the Mexican facility for it is expected to be finished in October), that crossing will "not be a full replacement" to handle the foot traffic. So the GSA is planning to also build a southbound pedestrian crossing directly to El Chaparral from Virginia Avenue, just east of Las Americas Premium Outlets.
"Everything we have looked at has identified a southbound pedestrian crossing at Virginia Avenue as a requirement," Kleppe said. He said GSA Region 9 was "really committed" to the project.
Kleppe said the GSA's regional organization will make a decision next month on whether the U.S. should build the curve. GSA would have to get permission from Congress to use previously authorized funds "for the curve and for the pedestrian facilities we think are so important. We anticipate receiving word on that in September."
He also said, "I think we have the ingredients for a strong interim crossing."
He said Camiones Way, to the west of I-5 just north of the current southbound pedestrian crossing, is currently used for buses, taxis, jitneys and private vehicles to drop off pedestrians headed south. He said it will lose its efficacy because there won't be a southbound pedestrian crossing there any more; that is where a traffic circle at Virginia Avenue just north of El Chaparral would come into play, and where buses, taxes, jitneys and private vehicles would drop people off. Kleppe said plans are for the circle and new pedestrian crossing at Virginia Avenue to be designed so that they can continue to be used when a more permanent connection from I-5 is built directly to El Chaparral.
At some future point, a northbound pedestrian crossing also is planned for the El Chaparral-Virginia Avenue crossing. Kleppe said Customs and Border Patrol is interested in that northbound crossing being built sooner rather than later, and GSA is looking into that.
Above photo: Virginia Avenue just north of El Chaparral. Las Americas Premium Outlets (not seen) are to the right.
Some officials questioning Kleppe at the Sandag meeting worried that the interim solution of the new curve from I-5 might become a permanent solution. Kleppe said, "The curve, we understand this is temporary.... When you get into questions like CPB's (planned) southbound inspection facilities, you can't do it on the footprint of the existing I-5. Also, a big part of the emphasis of doing the project is developing additional northbound lanes on the I-5 freeway that would happen on the existing southbound roadway." He added that the curve "doesn't accommodate the goals of the basic project." He said Mexico also does not want to see the curve as "the end of that process."
History, phases of the project
Kleppe outlined some of the history about the border points of entry improvements:
Phase 1: "The only thing fully funded at this point is Phase 1," which is reconfiguring the port of entry for northbound vehicles and pedestrians and the new southbound pedestrian crossing east of I-5.
Phase 2: Administration and pedestrian building.
Phase 3: Realignment: I-5 south and southbound Inspection facilities.
GSA fact sheet (a little out of date) on the phases (PDF file)
Sandag has posted Kleppe's presentation at bottom of this link (PDF).
Kleppe said that a year ago, Mexico asked the United States to connect to El Chaparral at Virginia Avenue and from I-5 along the border fence. But Kleppe said sending traffic through Virginia Avenue would have "huge street impacts" that make that option unworkable. The U.S. rejected the Mexican proposal.
He said a study based on the scenario from a year ago is no longer operative because the Mexican proposal has changed. Mexico has come up with a plan to provide more lanes of this traffic; this in turn has made the study's projection of incredibly long projected border wait times out of date.
Kleppe called Mexico a key stakeholder in the border-improvements project, saying, "We all succeed or we fail together." He said "technical meetings that we've had with Mexico have been essential to making positive improvements to the design of the project" and said there was a need to increase the frequency of meetings of U.S. and Mexican officials.
Mexico's Consul-General in San Diego, Remedios Gómez Arnau, said, "We have to celebrate that we are coming closer to the end of this binational project."
There was no mention of also building a bicycle crossing, which many bicyclists are seeking.
Update, June 9: Foreign Ministry official tells U-T San Diego that Puerta México will close when El Chaparral opens.
Update, May 31: GSA official Ramon Riesgo says agency may try to speed up construction of permanent I-5 connection to El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana
Update, July 31: Mexican tax agency official says El Chaparral to be ready for business in October.
Previous analysis of the problems the new border crossing may pose.
San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition seeks new pedestrian crossing, roundabout at Virginia Avenue.
Story on new eastern pedestrian crossing.
Baja California governor, federal transportation minister say Puerta México will not close in October when new El Chaparral port of entry opens