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OTAY MESA — At a time when border waits can stretch for hours, the plan seems almost too good to be true: a major new international crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, where trucks and passenger vehicles would wait no more than 20 minutes to reach the border.
Planners in the United States and Mexico are thinking big as they envision Otay Mesa East, a future port of entry that would serve both passenger vehicles and commercial trucks.
Otay Mesa East, also known as Otay II, would be California’s first tolled vehicle border crossing, incorporating binational lane management and toll collection. It would be privately financed through bonds in a plan where San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, would play the central role.
The project would set precedents at several levels and require an accurate way to measure border wait times at the nearby San Ysidro and Otay Mesa. Though years away from being a reality, the SANDAG vision has grabbed the attention of top federal officials in the United States and Mexico. They are touting the proposal as an example of a “21st century border” promoted by the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue, which seeks to strengthen the two countries’ economic and commercial ties.
“We’re seeing it as a new paradigm in the way in which Mexico and the United States finance, build, operate and administer border infrastructure,” said Marco Antonio Frías, an official with the federal Communications and Transportation Secretariat in Mexico City.
Envisioned as a state-of-the-art port of entry, the project is helping focus attention on Otay Mesa as a location for innovative border infrastructure projects and precedent-setting collaboration at the border between the United States and Mexico.
Earlier this month, a pedestrian port of entry, the Cross-Border Xpress, launched operations at Otay Mesa, linking Tijuana’s A.L. Rodríguez International Airport with San Diego. Privately built and operated, the facility is the only U.S. crossing that connects directly to a foreign airport, offering ticketed airline passengers who pay a toll a chance to cross faster.
Next month, U.S. and Mexican federal officials are preparing for another first on Otay Mesa: the opening of a joint inspection facility for fruit and vegetable shipments where customs officials from countries are preparing to work side-by-side. The facility is located in Tijuana, near the Otay Mesa commercial port of entry.
For Mexico, the Otay Mesa East port of entry project is “the most important project in the bilateral agenda on border infrastructure,” Frías said.
For now, nothing in the landscape of eastern Otay Mesa hints of this vision that has slowly been taking shape in low-key discussions and planning documents. In San Diego, a flat expanse of undeveloped land stretches to Otay Mountain. Across the border, box-like factory structures, storage yards and small makeshift houses of Tijuana’s outlying colonias press against the U.S. border fence.
It’s the need for a third crossing between Tijuana and San Diego and the scarcity of federal funds that are driving plans for the future port. According to SANDAG, the aim is to build 10 northbound commercial vehicle lanes, doubling region’s trade capacity. It would also include 10 northbound passenger vehicle lanes, with the option of converting lanes in both categories depending on demand.
Last year, more than $39 billion in goods passed through Otay Mesa, and SANDAG expects the volume to steadily increase in coming years. Even with the $741 million expansion and redesign of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which is scheduled for completion by 2019, the expected growth of the region will require more border infrastructure for passenger traffic as well.
“For the first time, we’re not going to the federal government and saying, “Hey, where do we get money for this new border crossing?” said Gary Gallegos, executive director of SANDAG. “We might grow really old waiting for the federal government to solve our problems.”
Otay Mesa East is a plan that has taken years to evolve — and is continuing to take shape through discussions among a host of federal and state agencies from both countries. Locally, SANDAG has been working closely with the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, because a planned toll road, state Route 11, is key to the overall project.
“This whole project is based on the value of time for each individual,” said Mario Orso, the Caltrans corridor director on the project. “We have learned that a border crossing cannot be created as an island. It’s a system of border crossings with their companion transportation facilities.”
Otay East “is an intriguing project because there are probably about 100 different variables, and they’re all moving at their own pace,” Gallegos said. “Our task is to figure out how we pull all those together in a project that we can build and finance and staff.”
Officials said the innovations take extra time, but just the fact that the project is moving forward is noteworthy.
“This is a concept that in the past might have been rejected by officials from both countries,” said an official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing discussions. “It reflects the extraordinary relationship that the U.S. and Mexican governments have with respect to border management. But we’re a long way from having a stipulated design and financing plan, let alone a project schedule.”
The idea for third border crossing dates back to the 1990s, but it gained traction following a border-wait-times study by SANDAG that found inadequate infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border “cost the U.S. and Mexican economies an estimated $7.2 billion in foregone gross output and more than 62,000 jobs in 2007.”
SANDAG found a supporter in Denise Moreno Ducheny, then a state senator, who agreed to sponsor Senate Bill 1486, the Otay Mesa East Toll Facility Act, aimed at creating a financial framework for the project. The legislation gave SANDAG the authority to build a toll road extension to the border, issue bonds and seek private investment funds. The measure became law in October 2008. The following month, a presidential permit was granted for the project.
“Everybody talks about building a 21st century border, but this is in fact the first real 21st century border facility,” said Ducheny, now a senior policy adviser at UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. “The same thing that makes it exciting, its innovation aspect, is what makes it challenging.”
The current estimated price tag is about $900 million — with the bulk of the cost, about $700 million, on the U.S. side, where the facilities would include a new California Highway Patrol inspection station. The estimate also incorporates the cost of access roads on both sides of the border.
Authorities on both sides of the border said they are working on acquiring land for the facility. U.S. planners are moving forward on another key component — developing accurate border wait time measurements so that users can decide whether it’s worth their while to pay the toll at Otay East.
A SANDAG study last year of the project’s economic viability projected a median toll of $2.35 for passenger vehicles and $15.45 for commercial vehicles. The opening date hinges on many factors, but planners are hoping to see the project underway by 2018.
Next month, Caltrans intends to open open a 1.5-mile stretch of state Route 11 that connects to state Route 905, the highway that connects Otay Mesa to the Interstate 5 and Interstate 805 highways. A second stretch of state Route 11, connecting to the future Otay East port of entry, would not be built “without knowing that the port of entry is coming,” Caltrans’ Orso said.
“What’s interesting about Otay II is that we have this opportunity to build it in the next few years, then we lose that forever,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce, which supports the project. “There’s willingness on the political fronts on both sides of the border. It’s hard for these things to align.”
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