Friday, Feb. 8, 2008 | The latest incarnation of a plan to revamp the world’s busiest land border crossing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry should become a reality later this year. Officials tasked with improving traffic flow and security at the border crossing said they plan to break ground in late summer on the first phase of a three-part project that will radically alter the face of San Diego’s main gateway to and from Mexico.

The promise to start construction comes despite decades of wrangling between a clutter of local, state and federal agencies on two sides of a border intensely divisive in both physical and economic terms.

Revamping The Border

  • The Issue: Officials say they will break ground on a new and improved San Ysidro Port of Entry later this year.
  • What It Means: The current border crossing is plagued by long delays that experts said have a negative economic impact on both sides of the border. A newer, more efficient border would speed up crossings, improving business relations and tourism between the United States and Mexico.
  • The Bigger Picture: The revamping of San Ysidro could cost as much as $580 million. That’s money local and state officials will have to convince the federal government is worth spending on the nation’s busiest border. And a third phase of the construction relies heavily on commitments from the Mexican government that are out of U.S. officials’ hands.

And the completion of the project, which will eventually include a new pedestrian bridge to Tijuana, new administration buildings for federal employees, state-of-the-art border booths and up to nine new northbound traffic lanes, must still navigate skepticism seeping towards it from both Mexico City and Washington, D.C.

But representatives of the Smart Border Coalition, a conglomerate of local grassroots groups that is campaigning for the San Ysidro redesign, said this time the plans to revamp the border are the real deal. They pointed to a recent accord, signed by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, that commits each leader to supporting the project, as evidence for their optimism.

“We’re breaking ground this summer,” said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of commerce. “It’s really happening this time.”

Wells said there have been at least three attempts in the last 15 years to improve conditions at the San Ysidro border crossing, which he said has become antiquated and ineffective in recent years.

That assessment was backed up by officials from the Regional San Diego Association of Governments. Elisa Arias, a principal planner at Sandag, said border crossers at the port of entry have to face unpredictable, unreliable waits at the border. That has an effect on the region’s economy, she said, as tourists, shoppers and businesspeople choose not to cross the border and face the delays. The current configuration of the border also violates new national security rules.

“Along the entire San Diego/Tijuana border, the border infrastructure hasn’t really kept pace with the demand for border crossings,” Arias said.

Overhauling the border crossing could cost as much as $580 million, and one element of the proposal, which would convert nine lanes of the southbound Interstate 5 into northbound lanes, will require significant financial commitments from the Mexican government to provide infrastructure for the new road on the Tijuana side of the border.

The first phase of the San Ysidro project will include building a parking area for Customs and Border Protection agents, building a new secondary inspection area for vehicles that do not pass the initial inspection, revamping border patrol booths and building a new pedestrian bridge across Interstate 5 for crossing into Mexico.

Almost $200 million to fund much of the first phase of construction was earmarked in President Bush’s 2008 budget, said Ramon Riesgo, program director of the project for the federal General Services Administration, which will design and build the new border project. Another $58 million was included in the president’s latest budget and must now be approved by Congress, he said.

Click here to see a diagram of the proposed border crossing alterations.

The GSA plans to rebuild the northbound lanes entering into Mexico, where most of the delays occur, so each lane has two booths, one in front of the other on each lane. That would allow CBP agents to check through two cars at the same time, and a pilot program CBP has been running on one of the lanes for the last six months showed border waits can be reduced by 40-45 percent with the two-tiered system, Riesgo said.

Riesgo said that the construction, which should take about two and a half years, will not affect either pedestrian or vehicle border traffic.

The old pedestrian bridge will not be closed until the new bridge is completed, he said, and the GSA is currently working out how to construct the two-tiered road booths without disrupting the near-constant flow of northbound traffic.

“We’re going to be working a lot of nights,” Riesgo said.

The second phase of the San Ysidro project will involve relocating the CBP’s administrative offices, which currently sit directly above the primary inspection booths for northbound vehicles. The current formation is against new national security rules, enacted after Sept. 11, 2001, that prohibit federal offices from being located above potential security risks like cars that have not been inspected

Riesgo said the offices will be moved to a different location on the federal site. He said the second phase of the project will also possibly include building a new southbound pedestrian border inspection facility just east of where pedestrians cross into the United States from Mexico.

But it’s the third phase of the San Ysidro project that is the most ambitious and faces the most potential political and economic hurdles.

The GSA’s plan is to convert the nine southbound lanes of Interstate 5 into nine new northbound lanes. Then they would divert the southbound 5 west in a sweeping arc across what is now a parking lot and a duty free store into Tijuana’s El Chaparral neighborhood.

This phase of the project would have the greatest effect in terms of easing the northbound gridlock, Riesgo said, but it’s an especially challenging undertaking. The new southbound highway would comprise a new border inspection station, to be built by the Mexican government. The Mexican government would also have to provide new infrastructure on the Tijuana side of the new freeway to connect the road to the city’s road grid.

Officials in Mexico could not be reached for comment. Officials in San Diego said their counterparts in Tijuana have completed much of the planning work needed to see the project to fruition.

And the officials said politicians south of the border are supportive of the San Ysidro project and are working to complete plans for the necessary infrastructure, the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce’ Wells said.

“We really have a window of opportunity over the next two years. The new municipal president of Tijuana, the governor of Baja California and the new president of Mexico are not only in the same party but have a very good relationship,” he said.

The statement signed by Ramos and Sanders, which pledges the commitment of the mayors toward improving border efficiency and reducing border wait times, only underscores that commitment, Wells said.

Riesgo said the third phase of the new port of entry is essentially contingent on Mexico providing adequate infrastructure on the Tijuana side of the border to support a new southbound border crossing. But he’s optimistic.

“The dynamics in both countries are very different when it comes to completing a project of this size,” Riesgo said. “The information that we have got from them is that this is still their No.1 priority on the northern border. The city of Tijuana and the new mayor informed us last week that they already had some plans in terms of roadways they will construct.”

But Riesgo acknowledged that the third phase of the project is also contingent on a continued funding commitment from the federal government. The cost of the project could run to $580 million, he said, and the high cost is precisely why the plans call to construct each phase in turn. The GSA won’t start each phase of the building until it has secured the funding to complete it from the federal government, he said.

“Each phase of this complements the others, but it’s not like we’re going to leave any buildings out there half-finished,” he said.

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