December 23, 2005

Area leaders seek third border crossing

By José A. Álvarez

The long lines at the two San Diego border crossing cost the region billions of dollars. That’s why leaders from both sides of the border are advocating for the construction of a third border crossing.

Representatives from several U.S. and Mexican agencies gathered at Southwestern College last week to discuss the scope of the project, the different funding alternatives and the timeline scenarios for the proposed Otay II Port of Entry. The forum was organized by the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and the Tijuana Maquiladora Association.

“We have been working on a project for a number of years,” said Bill Figge, Deputy Director of Planning for CalTrans, adding that in 2001, they submitted an application for a presidential permit authorizing construction of the project, which has not been issued.

For that reason, representatives from CalTrans and other local leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. to learn more about how to secure such needed document.

“Without a presidential permit, we don’t have a project,” added Figge.

In addition to the permit, several agencies from Mexico and the U.S. must buy into the project in order for it to proceed. If the permit is granted, it could take up to four years. Add to those six more years for design and construction and the Otay II crossing, they said, would not be ready until the year 2014.

The new port of entry would be situated two miles east of the Otay Mesa Crossing and would connect State Route 11 on the U.S. with the proposed Tijuana 2000 Bypass Highway in Mexico. It would also provide a more convenient means of transporting goods and services north to the SR-905/SR-125. The project would cost anywhere between $200 and $300 million. However, it is yet to be determined where the money will come from and whether the new crossing will be used for commercial, vehicular, or pedestrian crossings.

One option is to charge users a $3 fee, an option about 60 percent of people are willing to entertain, according to a survey conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

“People are willing to pay if they understand what they’re getting for what they pay,” said SANDAG’s Executive Director, Gary Gallegos.

The survey, conducted among, 3,600 border crossers at the San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate ports of entry, revealed that 59.4 would use the new crossing, 26.5 said they would not and 14.2 said they would use it occasionally. The same survey revealed that the average wait time to cross the border is 45 minutes and that more than 60 million trips take place at the three crossings.

“They would pay if that meant they could get across faster,” added Gallegos, indicating that another option was to develop private-public partnerships to pay for the project. Whatever the funding source is, he said, “We need to assist in a new border crossing and as soon as possible.”

Another issue yet to be determined is what the exact use of the new facility would be.

”We and you have a voice in deciding the type of border crossing it would be,” said Gallegos.

For the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it would be ideal if Otay II could be used for commercial crossings, replacing Otay I. That option would include “trusted fast travel programs” such as a number of SENTRI lanes for passenger vehicles.

“It’s very important to know what the community at large wants for Otay II,” said Paul Hennning, from the CBP.

According to Henning, 727,245 trucks crossed through the Otay Crossing during the fiscal year that ended in September. The figure was second to the number of crossings at the Laredo port of entry and ahead of the number commercial vehicles that crossed through El Paso.

“We need a plan that’s flexible and takes into account what would happen in the future in terms of commercial growth so that we don’t have to continue moving up the mountain,” Henning added.

Whatever the purpose of the new Otay II crossing is, officials from south of the border are urging for a new border crossing soon, especially since the population in the Tijuana region is expected to grow by 1.5 million in the future.

“This (population growth) is going to require multiple border crossings,” said Carlos Ponce, from the Baja California Secretary of Infrastructure and Urban Development. “We can’t wait until the year 2011. The first stages are very important for Baja California.”

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