Rebuilt border crossing aims to speed traffic

Published 07 March 11 02:22 PM

By Sandra Dibble and Janine Zuñiga

Long lines and lengthy waits have become an inescapable burden for tens of thousands of cross-border commuters at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Proposing to dramatically decrease crossing times for both vehicles and pedestrians, authorities Thursday formally launched a $577 million expansion and modernization of the world’s busiest land-border crossing.

Wait times during peak hours can currently stretch to more than two hours, and a 2009 study by the U.S. General Services Administration showed that if nothing is done, those waits could stretch to 10 hours by 2030.

Planned for completion by 2016, the new facility would reduce maximum waits to 30 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Added lanes, more booths and high-tech inspections are at the heart of the overhaul. It is the largest and costliest infrastructure project the U.S. government has ever undertaken along its land border.

“The need for a new facility is clear, and the stakes are high,” said Martha Johnson, administrator of the GSA, speaking at an outdoor ceremony at the port that drew authorities from the United States and Mexico. Over the next two decades, she said, traffic through the San Ysidro port is expected to increase by as much as 90 percent.

Growing delays have stifled myriad transactions on both sides of the border. San Diego’s supermarkets, shops and restaurants have lost large amounts of business from Mexican customers. Baja California’s hotels, restaurants and other tourist amenities have suffered a devastating drop in U.S. clientele in recent years, partly as a result of tighter security measures adopted following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The San Diego Association of Governments’ latest estimate, from 2007, calculates that the congestion at California’s border with Mexico costs the region close to $7.2 billion and more than 62,000 jobs annually.

“For most people who don’t go back and forth across the border, it’s just out of sight, out of mind,” said Christina Luhn, director of the Mega-Region Initiative at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. “They don’t understand what a two- or three-hour wait can mean.”

San Ysidro’s current facility has long been outdated. When it opened in the mid-1970s, the country was recovering from the Watergate scandal, disco was all the rage and terrorism wasn’t a domestic concern.

“It’s a changed society and buildings have to change with it,” said Ramon Riesgo, land port of entry adviser for the GSA, which is overseeing the construction of the new port.

The new facility is being called the “port of the future.” While San Ysidro now has 24 northbound lanes, including six with two inspection booths each, the rebuilt facility will include 34 northbound lanes with 64 inspection booths. Expanded pedestrian facilities will include a shaded path and 20 inspection stations.

To handle beefed-up inspections southbound, six lanes are being added on the U.S. side of the border.

The design, by Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership, includes a translucent roof structure that shields cars and officers from rain and sun. The project is being planned to conserve both energy and water, and the aim is to achieve LEED Platinum certification, a recognition for environmentally friendly structures.

Another environmental benefit being cited is improved air quality at the crossing, due to the decreased wait times and shorter lines.

The new port “will enable us to better manage traffic in many many ways,” said Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that operates the port of entry. The changes will allow for improved use of technology, greater flexibility in opening and closing lanes, and the expansion of trusted traveler programs where prescreened crossers are processed more quickly.

U.S. authorities have worked closely with Mexico in designing the project. The Mexican government is planning changes south of the border costing more than $53 million, including expanding the number of lanes from six to 20, said Juan José Erazo, who directs border crossing infrastructure projects for Mexico’s Communications and Transportation Secretariat.

Mexico is also building bridges and access roads to the new crossing, as well as an intermodal facility that would allow San Diego Trolley passengers to connect directly to a rapid transit bus system being planned on the Mexican side.

While many community groups seem hopeful the expansion project will achieve its aims, not everyone is convinced that infrastructure is the only answer.

“It comes down to efficiency of inspections,” said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and member of a coalition fighting to improve security and border-crossing times while providing support for local businesses.

“We could spend $600 million and have a new port of entry, but if you have agents in primary inspection lanes getting on their knees tapping on tires and opening trunks, we could still have a 2-3 hour wait time,” he said.

The U.S. modernization project is being conducted in three phases. Only the first phase, totaling nearly $293 million, has been funded. It includes a pedestrian bridge scheduled for opening next month, an expansion of the northbound inspection facilities, and a southbound pedestrian crossing. The second phase involves improvements and construction of pedestrian processing facilities. The third phase entails new southbound lanes.

At Thursday’s ceremony, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, said the fight to fund the second and third phases continues in Congress. Last week, the House voted to cut $1.5 billion from the GSA budget. “We’ve got to make sure those cuts don’t stay,” he said. “Because they threaten the economic viability that we’re celebrating today.”



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