August 1, 2008

Otay Mesa Tested To Relieve Traffic Congestion at the Border

By Mariana Martínez

The long wait at the border has worried government officials, business owners and thousands of families, people who depend on the flow of goods and people to survive. Many answers have been on the drawing board; from a third border crossing to a binational airport and even double-stacked checking points.

But until now, they have only been plans, not yet passed by the binational burocratic maze of approvals, and even if they do, they would still take at least 5 years to be complete. An immediate answer might be a pilot plan, launched by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to expedite the border crossing by using the commercial port in Otay Mesa to process traffic during the weekend.

The first test was Sunday July 27th, when tour lanes of the commercial port of entry in Otay where opened to process regular tourist traffic. The port was open from 5 pm to 8 pm, as a test to see if this helped decongest traffic at nearby crossings.

“The first trial was back in May, but there wasn’t enough traffic to provide much of an answer -just 300 vehicles where processed- because when police directed people to the commercial gates they didn’t believe them”, said Mariano Escobedo Lavín, council member for the Conventions and Tourism Committee (Cotuco).

Escobedo explained the project could allow a faster border crossing A:t an estimated time of 20 second inspection per vehicle in the four extra lanes, which means around 12 extra vehicles inspected every minute.

Until now, the Commercial Port of Entry at Otay Mesa had been working for commercial traffic until 4 pm on Sundays and then closed. This is exactly the heaviest traffic time, because a lot of people go down to Tijuana over the weekends to visit families, doctors’ visits or shopping.

The idea to use the Commercial Port came from a binational work group.

“We really like the idea of this pilot program”, said Alejandra Mier y Teran, a group member and Otay Chamber of Commerce Director, “this is a smart use of existing resource at a time where it’s needed most”.

Law enforcement agencies from Mexico and the US will be working together to direct passengers traveling to the US trough Mexican Customs offices, to the Commercial Port of entry, opened on Sundays from 5pm to 8 pm.

According to CBP statistics, during a busy weekend, the 13 lanes at the Otay Port can have a border wait of an hour and a half, and double that time during holidays.

The temporary inspection station can issue I-94 permits for Mexican passengers, agriculture specialists and secondary inspection stations will also be on task.

“We are hoping to process at least 600 vehicles a day during the test period, that will allow us to get realistic information to evaluate it” said Gurdit Dhillon, Director of field operations at CBP in San Diego.

“If the test is successful, we could use the commercial ports on Sundays and holidays in the future, to minimize the wait times. CBP is well aware of the issue and we hope to use strategies to reduce the impact to passengers”, he added.

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