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Mayor Bob Filner thinks now is the time for San Diego and Tijuana to act as one region. But some of his big plans to facilitate such cohesion might have sounded more innovative a few decades ago.

The 70-year-old mayor recently called for San Diego and Tijuana to share an area code, and he’s working to open an office space in Tijuana and set up a desk phone that would directly connect him with Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante.

Not all of these solutions are particularly relevant in this century, or even new.

Indeed, Filner has advocated for a merged area code for years.

While some of the border region’s concerns haven’t changed for years — among them sewage that flows from Mexico onto beaches north of the border — the technological landscape has changed vastly since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.

Residents on both sides of the border can now communicate using Skype, FaceTime and more sophisticated video-conferencing tools. They spend more time fiddling with their iPhones and Androids than chatting on landline phones. In fact, many are abandoning stationary phones altogether.

And as the #FilnerEverywhere meme proves, the mayor himself prefers being on site at locations around the city rather than tethered to an office.

Filner and Bustamante have exchanged cell phone numbers and chatted by cell, a development that would seemingly obviate the need for a “mayoral bat phone” like the one Filner envisions but has yet to be installed.

Improved technology has not yet thwarted ballooning border wait times. Filner has repeatedly pledged to improve often hours-long lines at the border and spoke about the importance of doing so at a Thursday forum, suggesting waits could be as short as 10 to 15 minutes with proper staffing and political will.

Border experts agree that the long lines are Filner’s primary nemesis. To tackle them, he’ll need to persuade out-of-state politicians and federal officials that San Diego’s border deserves increased staffing and better infrastructure. Filner might be uniquely suited to tackle the bureaucracy.

Advocates and academics on both sides of the border agree San Diego should collaborate with Baja California to solve problems and boost the region’s economy. But that doesn’t mean all of Filner’s suggestions are practical.

“Some of these ideas are significant but they don’t have any real value,” said Oscar Romo, a professor at the University of California, San Diego who has spent years working with officials on both sides of the border.

He offered the soon-to-be unveiled San Diego office in Tijuana as an example.

What Filner has trumpeted as an office is a cubicle space at Tijuana’s economic development corporation that comes with access to several meeting rooms.

That may be a positive short-term solution but it would be more effective to have an office right at the border, where leaders on either side could meet without waiting in line, Romo said.

A permanent office in the city would be even better, he said.

Romo, who has met with Filner’s binational affairs director to provide input, said the office should instead work on a meaningful memorandum of understanding that outlines how the two cities will work together or on tangible efforts that improve conditions on both sides of the border.

David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, zeroed in on Filner’s technological proposals.

Video conferencing or walkie-talkies that endure during disasters would be more effective than a desk phone that connects the two mayors, Shirk said.

“Nobody’s at their desk, so a desk phone is not as cutting-edge idea as a video- conferencing system where you could have the city councils of San Diego and Tijuana interacting together,” he said.

Still, Shirk and other San Diego border experts said Filner’s ideas could serve as symbols of his interest in collaboration and communication with leaders south of the border.

“The bottom line I guess is that we can nitpick about whether the specific ideas he’s proposing are quite right but at the end of the day, he’s throwing out ideas,” Shirk said.

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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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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