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Funding to improve the world’s busiest land border crossing made it into President Barack Obama’s budget but that doesn’t mean the project will shorten lines at the San Ysidro port anytime soon.
Some San Diego politicians and business leaders have spent years advocating for the completion of a three-phase project that would boost the crossings’ outdated infrastructure with 38 new inspection booths and realign Interstate 5 to match up with Mexico’s El Chaparral facility, among other fixes.
The latest upgrade would create the new southbound connection to Mexico and add northbound inspection booths.
But no one is certain the $226 million the president included in his budget for the latest phase of the project will make its way to San Ysidro.
The budget proposal must survive both the budget appropriations process and an ever-dysfunctional Congress, which hasn’t approved a formal budget since 2009.
Rep. Susan Davis, part of San Diego’s congressional delegation who has championed the funding, said she doesn’t feel comfortable making promises.
“We know that no matter where we try and push it in the budget we have a lot of people who don’t want to move in the direction of investment that supports the economy right now,” Davis told Voice of San Diego.
Davis and other advocates are cautiously optimistic.
They’re grateful the Obama administration identified the funds but if Congress once again fails to pass a budget, the funding is history.
That’s significant because Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009. Instead, it’s relied on continuing resolutions — legislative tools that allow lawmakers to simply extend the previous year’s budget.
Continuing resolutions don’t incorporate construction projects, meaning such a move would keep San Ysidro funding off the nation’s balance sheet for next year.
Funding for improved border infrastructure in Calexico, Calif., fell prey to a continuing resolution in 2011.
The Senate allocated $84.4 million for the area’s west port of entry but Congress never produced a bill.
Last December, the Imperial Valley Press reported that Imperial County is now negotiating with California Power Corp., which may be willing to bankroll the border crossing upgrades. This is the county’s backup plan for the Calexico crossing should federal leaders fail to allocate funds anytime soon.
If there isn’t a continuing resolution, the funds are more likely to survive but there’s still a chance they could be nixed in a bid to lower the nation’s deficit, or in a budget compromise.
That’s why even the San Ysidro project’s strongest advocates aren’t convinced it will get started anytime soon.
“I think being in the president’s budget is a very positive sign but whether it will make it through the budget or not, I don’t know,” said Paul Ganster, director of San Diego State University’s Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias.
Ganster, who has long pushed San Diego leaders to collaborate more with their Baja California counterparts, said the full backing of the region’s full congressional delegation will be key.
City Councilman David Alvarez, whose district includes San Ysidro, agreed.
“If we don’t have our own delegation from our own backyard advocating in support of this, it’s going to be hard to persuade 430 members of Congress to do the same,” Alvarez said.
Democratic Reps. Davis, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas have championed the San Ysidro funding. Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are also supportive.
Conservative Reps. Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa have been less specific about their views.
Issa was the only representative at a local Chamber of Commerce event last week who didn’t give “full-throated support” for San Ysidro funding, according to Patch.com. Hunter didn’t attend.
“I’m not going to pretend that we’re going to do this,” Issa said.
Spokespeople for Hunter and Issa didn’t respond to repeated requests for details on their positions this week.
James Clark, director-general of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Mexico Business Center and the San Diego-Tijuana Smart Border Coalition, said cash for improvements at the San Ysidro crossing is crucial for the region.
“It’s just so important to our economy. It’s low-hanging fruit,” said Clark.
Indeed, 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.
Improved infrastructure could significantly lessen those waits, which can last hours. All that time discourages shoppers, tourists and workers from crossing the border more frequently.
“We need to grow the economy and in order to do that, we really need to have this project move forward,” Clark said.
Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0528.
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