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Mayor Bob Filner may be uniquely suited to fight San Diego and Tijuana’s border crossing woes.

The former 10-term congressman and city councilman spent more than two decades representing border communities and for a time, served as co-chair of the Congressional Border Caucus. Indeed, one of his last acts as a congressman was to urge the federal government to pay for upgrades at one of San Diego’s busiest border crossings.

The new mayor said that mission is as important as ever now that he occupies the city’s most powerful post.

He mentioned the border in initial jaunts across the city, including in his inauguration speech.

Filner, who greeted the Inauguration Day crowd in both English and Spanish, declared he’d work every day to improve cross-border relations and lessen the long lines that have hampered much of that cooperation.

He’s planning trips to Washington D.C. and Mexico City to lobby for change. There, he’ll argue that trade and consumer spending could boom if crossing the border were less onerous, and that the binational region can’t reach its full potential without federal assistance.

“There’s never been a problem between the cities,” said Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante. “It’s the politicians in Washington and Mexico City. They hear us but they don’t understand and they don’t listen.”

Lesser waits might encourage San Diego tourists who might easily walk or drive through the San Ysidro crossing to spend an afternoon in Tijuana. Shoppers from Baja California, who already descend on San Diego County shopping centers by the thousands, could visit more regularly. Business leaders on both sides of the border could cross without fear of losing hours of precious work time waiting in line.

Instead, cross-border relations are hampered by massive lines at the border.

“People face very arbitrary wait times that can go two, three, four hours and they won’t cross,” Filner said. “Why put yourself through that if it’s just to have a meal on the other side or visit relatives? You may just put that off.”

A 2007 report from SANDAG, the county’s regional planning agency, projected San Diego and Baja California lose billions each year due to logjams at the border.

That year, SANDAG estimated, the binational region missed out on $7.2 billion and more than 62,000 jobs due to the long waits.

Still, Filner and others will need to persuade San Diegans and out-of-state politicians who don’t regularly cross the border that costly improvements are vital if he wants to successfully usher in change.

David Mayagoitia, chairman of the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation, has a suggestion for Filner: Show them why they should care.

Mayagoitia, whose organization promotes cross-border business, said the new mayor might open San Diegans’ eyes with a comprehensive study that details the economic impact of the cross-border relationship, and what both sides could gain with a stronger partnership.

Without such a study, it’s difficult for those without ties to Mexico to understand how connected the two countries’ economies have become.

“There is no recognition in San Diego of the amount of money that the Tijuana population (spends) in San Diego,” Mayagoitia said. “There is very little understanding on both sides how much we impact each other.”

Filner also will need to persuade officials in Washington that the region’s border infrastructure deserves significant cash in an era of budget belt-tightening.

The struggle to win federal dollars is evidenced by the current status of planned updates at the San Ysidro border crossing.

Mexican officials invested $76.4 million in their portion of the upgrade last year but Congress has yet to fund its portion of the project. The Associated Press detailed how Mexican leaders coped with the lack of U.S. support:

The new Mexico-bound lanes opened as the U.S. government is in the middle of its own $583 million expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing. A big part of the U.S. government’s plans — redirecting Interstate 5 in California with a soft curve leading into Tijuana — has not been funded by Congress.

Instead of waiting for the U.S. government to finish realigning its freeway, Mexico decided on a stopgap solution, introducing a sharp right turn for motorists entering Tijuana. Motorists drive along the border for about 300 yards to reach new inspection booths.

There have been some successes, though.

In late July, construction crews unveiled the six-lane state Route 905, which connects Interstate 805 to the Otay Mesa border crossing. Cross-border commuters once relied on a single street to access the crossing.

Another project is also in the works.

Private financing will support a cross-border terminal from Otay Mesa to Tijuana’s General A.L. Rodriguez International Airport. The chief executive of the company that operates the Tijuana airport told U-T San Diego he hopes the Mexico portion of the terminal will be operational by summer 2014.

But proponents and government entities committed to those projects years ago. Filner and others will need to lobby to finish the expansion at San Ysidro in a different political climate.

Filner and Bustamante hope to shape attitudes in coming months. The San Diego mayor recently said he was plans to meet with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He and Bustamante also want to travel to their capital cities together to demand federal action.

They hope others will join the cause.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders, who now serves as chief executive at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he’ll be cheering them on. He was once the one traveling to Washington to lobby for federal money.

Sanders predicted Filner’s congressional experience could give him an advantage. Filner is well aware that securing the funds is a matter of political will.

“We have to put pressure on the executive branch,” Filner said. “I think the mayors of all the border cities should get together, and the governors of border states and the chambers of commerce in all the cities. You put all that together and I think the executive branch will respond.”

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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