December 7, 2001

Commentary

First Came the Twin Towers

Now the San Diego Tijuana Pedestrian Bridge

By Pete Dominguez

The ripples change everything: The wake of the September 11 atrocities is now threatening to undo several important real estate and business projects along the San Diego-Tijuana border. And what began as the worst terrorist attack in the history of America is now spreading to create an economic calamity for the San Diego-Tijuana region as well.

The latest and largest victim of this new economic reality may well be the controversial pedestrian bridge proposed between San Diego and Tijuana. When this project, which is also supposed to feature hotel and convention facilities, surfaced several years ago, border waits were almost non-existent; merchants on both sides were flush with cash and customers; and shoppers from Tijuana were eager to visit San Diego to spend their new wealth on American goods.

Indeed, the unprecedented prosperity is what led the American developer and his investors to crunch their numbers and come up with a way to make this $100 million project make sense in an area that previously had been anathema to real estate investors.

That was before the ripples of September 11 changed everything. Today, opposition to 50 cent toll the bridge would require is growing on both sides of the border. Former Assemblymember Denise Ducheny says the 50 cent toll would discourage cross-border economic activity. The 50 cent toll would equal about one hours wage in Tijuana.

Today, the Tijuana shoppers that border developers are counting on to spend their pesos at their new shopping center at the American end of the bridge are staying home, buffeted by an economic downturn in Mexico, and driven off by two hour waits at the border.

Indeed, one of the reasons border waits are so long today is because of the local border officers who were transferred to the Canadian border to increase security there.

The pedestrian bridge, praised by some as visionary while others claim it is wishful thinking, was always a tenuous project at best. It requires dozens of approvals on both sides of the border from federal officials in Washington and Mexico City in their respective departments of immigration, customs, justice, agriculture, labor, commerce, transportation and others.

Even before September 11, these approvals were far from certain, because many questions on financing the structure, paying for customs and immigration officials on both sides of the border, and bridge maintenance remained unanswered.

Today, federal officials are insisting on more border security, even as there is less money to pay for it. Federal officials in the United States and Mexico recently agreed to set aside their recent happy talk about open borders and easy entry. Instead, they agreed that mounting threats of terrorism made border security a higher priority than immigration reform and promoting border commerce.

In addition, after San Diego Rep. Duncan Hunter had succeeded in killing a train line from San Diego to Arizona because it would briefly cross into Mexico, his expected opposition to the pedestrian bridge was expected to be a major obstacle to the bridge's success.

Part of the conservative Hunter's reaction could also be attributed to a growing awareness —even alarm in some circles— that the bridge may start near a decent shopping center in San Ysidro, but it actually ends in one of the most notorious red light districts in North America. Certainly giving new meaning to the "improvements in international relations" that promoters of this project promise.

The proposed hotel and convention center near the bridge also appear in danger, since hotel financing -scarce even before September 11- has disappeared since then- leaving another gaping hole in the project.

Local officials seem to be unusually quick in getting the message. A few weeks ago, San Diego transit officials rebuffed plans by the bridge developer to build a transportation center for trolleys, cars and buses at the foot of the proposed bridge. Instead, they voted to build the transportation center near the existing border crossing.

And without the buses and trolleys to bring people to and from the bridge, the bridge makes little economic sense —especially since the bridge must be built with private funds.

And even before that, city officials killed plans for a new cargo airport a few miles away at Brown Field because the city council said the new airport would be a security risk.

City officials are holding their breathe at the border because they recently invested $20 million in a border shopping center in an effort to revitalize San Ysidro. The investment was to be repaid with taxed generated by the shops — revenues that are now in danger.

These are just the first ripples. Soon, we in San Diego will learn how (quietly) economically intertwined out two cities have become, once the border delays and economic downturns in Mexico start leading to factory closings, layoffs, and other business slowdowns throughout our region.

And not even the highest bridge between our two countries may withstand the flood from the dam that burst on September 11.

Pete Dominguez is a Real Estate Investor and an occasional author. He can be reached at: chulapete@aol.com.

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