For decades, San Diegans have debated alternatives to the city’s landlocked downtown airport and pushed solutions as radical as a floating one.

Now a group of Mexican and U.S. investors, including Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, has gotten the official go-ahead to build a cross-border bridge that at least partly address the longtime quandary by making it easier for San Diegans and Mexicans to fly out of Tijuana’s General Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport.

The plan isn’t new. It’s been more than 20 years in the making. Mexico’s airport authority even proposed a strikingly similar Otay Mesa connection about 15 years before business and city leaders on our side of the border coalesced behind it.

Here’s a guide to San Diego and Tijuana’s coming cross-border bridge.

The What and Where

Image courtesy Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC
Image courtesy of Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC

Developers envision a two-story facility on a now barren 55-acre parcel in Otay Mesa that abuts the border and sits directly across from Tijuana’s airport.

The U.S. side will be bustling in less than two years if investors have their way. The two-level airport crossing building will house a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing hub, offices, ticketing counters, retail stores – and of course, the crucial 390-foot bridge to Tijuana’s airport.

They’re also planning roads with ample space to drop off and pick up travelers, plus parking and rental car options.

Image courtesy Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC
Image courtesy of Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC

But this two-level structure will take up less than half of the property. The investors may add restaurants, stores or even a hotel later if there’s demand.

On the other side of the border fence, the Tijuana airport is being renovated to accommodate the pedestrian bridge and immigration processing facilities. There’s also an expansion under way.

The Forces Behind It

Leaders from both countries want greater connectivity but they haven’t always been on the same page.

In the early 1990s, then-City Councilman Ron Roberts pushed a plan known as TwinPorts, essentially a binational airport on the border, that crumbled under criticism from then-County Supervisor Brian Bilbray, then-City Councilman Bob Filner and the U.S. government. Mexican officials ultimately decided they weren’t interested either, and in 1991 recommended a Tijuana airport expansion and a terminal entrance on the San Diego side.

Here are a couple renderings from that report, which envisioned a passageway from the U.S. to Mexico.

Image courtesy Kenn Morris
Image courtesy of Kenn Morris
Image courtesy Kenn Morris
Image courtesy of Kenn Morris

Tijuana airport operators soon moved forward with their own development plans, adding two runways for jumbo jets.

And San Diego officials kept brainstorming.  A few other stateside airport ideas – including that infamous floating airport – came up over the next two decades but didn’t stick. Then, in 2006, the county Airport Authority committee announced it wanted to look into that cross-border airport terminal. An airport study later found easier access to the Tijuana airport wouldn’t put a damper on business at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field airport.

Business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, the South County EDC and their Mexican counterparts, publicly touted the idea.

The Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC, an investor group that includes the operator of the Tijuana airport and Zell, picked up the torch in 2008 when it purchased the land in Otay Mesa. It’s been working on development plans, high-profile permits and complex agreements with customs officials on both sides of the border ever since.

How It’ll Work

The cross-border airport pathway will work much like San Diego’s border crossings in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa with one major exception: You’ll need a Tijuana airline ticket to use the pedestrian bridge.

There will also be a fee to cross. Charges between $13 and $17 each way have been publicly floated but a spokeswoman for the investor group declined to say whether facility operators are still eyeing costs in that range.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are expected to man the facility about 20 hours a day, seven days a week once the facility opens but expect to up their hours as more travelers use it, said Pete Flores, the agency’s director of field operations for San Diego.

Flores said the investor group has agreed to foot all associated public safety costs and to construct necessary facilities for officers.

Who Will Use It

Past market research by the developers revealed that more than half of the roughly 4 million travelers who fly out of the Tijuana airport annually cross the border to catch their flight or come to the U.S. at some point during their visit.

A January New York Times story noted  just how many Americans use the Mexican airport, and why:

Each year, 2.4 million travelers from the United States use the Tijuana airport, even if it means waiting for hours at the border. They provide the airport with nearly 60 percent of its traffic.

It is worth the trouble for those people because fares in Tijuana are substantially lower — up to 50 percent less to fly throughout Mexico — than at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field or other airports, like Los Angeles International.

Using those assumptions, the investors backing the airport bridge estimated about 1.7 million TIJ passengers will use their facility to get to the Tijuana airport each year.

Flores anticipates the bridge will also help ease congestion and long lines at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.

Kenn Morris, who leads the business consulting firm Crossborder Group and regularly studies binational trends, said he expects the majority of pedestrian bridge users will be Mexican travelers visiting Southern California or U.S. residents vacationing in Mexico.

When It’ll Be a Reality

The investors conquered their last major roadblock in March when they reached an agreement with Customs and Border Protection.

Still, developers have been mum on when construction will start. The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection may have spilled the beans at a round-table discussion last month when he said the State Department notified Mexico that construction would start in May.

A spokeswoman for the development group wouldn’t confirm that timeframe.

Whenever construction does start, it’s projected to span about 15 months, meaning the cross-border facility is unlikely to be open for business until at least late summer 2015.

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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