By Barbara Zaragoza
Locals remember the days when border waits were no more than fifteen minutes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry (SY POE).
Today, border wait times often reach upwards of three to four hours.
According to the General Services Administration (GSA) that owns 50 acres of land at the SY POE, 50,000 northbound vehicles and 25,000 northbound pedestrians cross the border each day. That translates into a total estimated 50 million people crossing the SY POE each year, making it the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere.
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) reports that traffic congestion at the border results in billion dollar losses for San Diego and the entire U.S. To decrease border wait times, the GSA has undertaken a large reconfiguration project in three phases. The amount of money allocated to all three phases is $741 million.
Compare that to the Mid-Coast Trolley, which will open around 2016 and cost the City of San Diego $1.7 billion. The ridership for all five stops is estimated to be 20,000 passengers. Compare that also to President Obama’s urgent request to Congress back in July for almost $4 billion to set up more detention facilities and aerial surveillance to respond to the 52,000 children who have crossed the border illegally.
The GSA’s reconfiguration project began back in 2009 and Phase 1 included the completion of the pedestrian bridge on exclusively the U.S. side.
A few months ago, a new head-house was finished. The building currently has two GSA tenants: Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), both under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The 3-story, 84,000-square-foot building acts as the POE’s nerve center, where CBP and ICE officers can enhance security. The GSA explains that the headhouse includes sustainability features, including a solar water heating system, solar panels and an onsite wastewater treatment system.
As Phase 1 continues, construction on the northbound vehicular inspection booths includes 110,000 square feet of energy producing canopies. The GSA predicts these canopies and booth constructions will be finished by November. At that time, the POE, through conservation and solar production, should have zero energy output.
Traci Madison, the Regional Public Affairs Officer at GSA explained in an email, “Once Phase 1B of the San Ysidro construction project is complete this fall, 25 new lanes and 46 primary inspection booths will be available for Customs and Border Protection use. Our traffic model indicates that if all lanes and booths are manned and operated the expected border crossing time will dramatically decrease to less than 30 minutes.”
Phase 1 addresses the concern by San Ysidro community members over elevated pollution at the POE. In 2012, David Flores of Casa Familiar undertook a Health Borders project and found that idling vehicles at the border produced greenhouse gases equivalent to approximately 166,037 barrels of oil per year and produced an estimated 78,700 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
The San Ysidro Community Protests GSA Plans
The last piece of Phase 1 is a pedestrian facility at Virginia Avenue on the West side of the POE. During a May 14th forum held at Willow Elementary School auditorium, GSA senior asset manager Anthony Kleppe unveiled the artist’s rendering of the so-called Pedestrian West Facility.
He explained, “It is initially going to be a ten-lane facility, eight dedicated northbound and two reversible lanes.”
Simon Falic, chairman and chief operating officer of UETA Duty Free Americas (DFA) as well as Thomas Currie, President of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce attended the meeting. They, alongside others, voiced disapproval of the architectural design because it didn’t represent a world-class facility. Instead, it looked more like a road-stop bathroom.
The GSA gave no answer as to whether the architectural designs would be changed.
Recently, the GSA’s Phase 3 was approved and $226 million was allocated within the President’s fiscal year 2014 budget. This phase includes a realignment of I-5 South to expand from the current 5 lanes to 10 lanes. The I-5 South will also connect to Mexico’s new El Chaparral facility.
San Ysidrans, however, have voiced many protests concerning the realignment. To make way for the I-5 expansion, GSA’s Phase 3 will take away more than 1,000 parking spaces. The GSA will also buy the UETA Duty Free Americas store through eminent domain.
San Ysidrans have noted that this will increase the traffic nightmare that already exists at the POE, especially since the City of San Diego has made no plans to change the street infrastructure to coincide with the reconfiguration. In addition, a major employer and philanthropist in San Ysidro, UETA, will be forced to leave.
On June 9th Simon Falic proposed a solution. He unveiled an architectural design for a world-class multiuse parking lot, replete with a helioport. Although the UETA store will be destroyed to make way for the I-5 South, Falic asked that he be allowed to retain 3 acres next to Virginia Avenue in order to build the structure.
The UETA proposal would create jobs in a neighborhood where unemployment is high. In addition, UETA has been one of the top five donors to Casa Familiar, a non-profit organization that provides low-income housing and more than fifty services to the Spanish speaking community. The GSA, however, didn’t immediately respond to Falic.
Jason Wells, Co-Founder of the San Ysidro Border Coalition, piloted a campaign that generated more than 5,000 signatures asking the GSA to accept Falic’s proposal.
A community meeting was then held at The Front art gallery on August 19th. GSA representative Anthony Kleppe presented the news that Phase 3 had received the necessary funding and Phase 2 (which will construct an administration and pedestrian building) had been included in the 2015 Presidential Budget. He further explained that the UETA property had not yet been appraised.
Community members were unhappy with the GSA response. Immediately following the meeting, Jason Wells wrote a letter to Commissioner Norman Dong of the GSA in Washington D.C. asking him to support the proposal. Commissioner Dong is the government official who has the final say.
Wells wrote: “In addition to making Phase 3 complete, the DFA proposal will offer 300 new jobs to San Ysidro; various, new commercial opportunities; and the mere iconic aspect of their proposal will be an economic driver for further investment in San Ysidro.”
Wells then left to Washington D.C. on September 8th to meet with Dong alongside members of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce who support the DFA proposal.
Once all three phases of GSA’s reconfiguration are complete, the GSA promises to have 62 northbound vehicle primary inspection booths and one dedicated bus lane. All three phases are set to be complete in 2018. It remains a question whether San Ysidro community input will be heard.