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Slow-moving cross-border travel may finally accelerate if a handful of makeover plans ever materialize.

This week Congress voted to set aside $216 million for the final phase of the bustling San Ysidro border crossing that had long been stalled and developers building a pedestrian bridge to the Tijuana airport announced construction is under way.

Meanwhile, the soaring vision for a defunct rail line meant to make it easier to ferry goods from Mexico and San Diego County across the U.S. appears stuck in its tracks despite boosters’ long-held high hopes.

If these upgrades become reality, they’ll do more than just ease border crossers’ frustrations.

The county’s planning agency once estimated the post-Sept. 11 border slowdown cost the U.S. and Mexico economies $7.2 billion and more than 62,000 jobs in 2007 alone.

Here’s a status update on three border projects that proponents in the U.S. and Mexico have pushed for years.

An Expanded San Ysidro Crossing

Creative Commons photo via Flickr user Swiv
Creative Commons photo via Flickr user Swiv

An average of 50,000 cars and 25,000 people cross into the U.S. at the San Ysidro border crossing each day, according to the General Services Administration.

A series of projects are in the works to ensure they spend less time in line.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a bill that grants $216 million to build a pedestrian processing facility and associated plaza that’ll make up the final phase of the expansion. The Senate must sign off before the feds can get to work on these new projects though that’s far from a sure bet.

But workers have already added many new northbound lanes for cars and mostly finished up a new central hub for U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffers.

Now federal officials are hashing out realignment plans for southbound Interstate 5 and pedestrian crossing improvements on Virginia Avenue. A duty-free store whose current location along the border will likely be demolished in the border improvement process is lobbying for a new space nearby too. It’s advocating for new store, eateries and parking that would also disappear per the latest construction blueprint.

A GSA spokeswoman said these projects – with the exception of the proposed duty-free store – are set to be finished by January 2018 though border crossers will see many improvements much sooner.

No timeline will be set for the final phase of the project, which includes the pedestrian facility and a plaza, unless the Senate also signs off.

A Bridge to Tijuana’s Airport

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

U.S. travelers who want to use Tijuana’s General Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport – which offers generally lower prices and some direct flights unavailable in San Diego – now must gamble with hard-to-predict border lines on their way to catch those flights.

That’s expected to change by summer 2015 with the opening of the Cross Border Xpress, a $120 million project supported by U.S. and Mexican investors. Construction started recently.

I described how these plans will work earlier this year:

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.

Crossers will need a Tijuana airline ticket to use the 390-foot bridge. They’ll also pay a crossing fee.

Developers are betting hundreds of thousands of travelers will do this each year. The New York Times noted in January that 2.4 million U.S. travelers already use the Tijuana airport annually.

A Rail Line to Revolutionize Cross-Border Business

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Business leaders have long championed plans to restore the Desert Line, a rail project that would link Mexican auto companies with potentially lucrative deals elsewhere and save companies in the region serious cash but their hopes have been repeatedly dashed by setbacks.

The latest has been a swirl of controversy around the Metropolitan Transit System’s contract with Pacific Imperial Railroad, which nearly failed to fork over its lease payment recently and has been hit with several lawsuits in the past.

Despite all the criticism, Pacific Imperial says it’s got a $150 million agreement with another company to help rebuild the line and is meeting with other potential funders. The company’s lease, which was approved in 2012, is effective until 2062 unless MTS can prove it isn’t meeting its obligations.

So far reality hasn’t matched the grand vision for the project, which proponents say would save millions, improve the environment by taking idling trucks out of long border lines and eliminate complicated realities for businesses that work on both sides of the border. They now must rely on Los Angeles’ rail connection to ferry their goods.

Philanthropist Malin Burnham described the line’s possibilities earlier this month:

“There’s a Toyota plant in Tecate, they are building 55,000 pickup trucks a year,” he said. “They go on a truck, haul them to Los Angeles to put on a train to go to the Midwest and then the east, where the market is.”

For the rail line to be a good investment, Burnham said it would need to fill 300 rail cars a day. The coalition expects factories in Tijuana to fill up to 1,000 rail cars a day, taking roughly 3,000 trucks off the roads and out of clogged border crossing lines.

“If [Toyota] could load those trucks on a railcar at their plant, and they have the track there, and let it go over this line we’re talking about, they’d save over $30 million a year,” Burnham said. “Now that’s real money.”The Desert Line would allow many goods-carrying crossers to avoid the Otay Mesa border crossing and stop spending so much cash on trucking their wares north.

Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Sanders has also spoken up for the project, which he says could persuade companies to use San Diego’s port rather than those elsewhere, and foster more cross-border business.

“We’re seeing more companies want to come here and work on both sides of the border, but the railroad’s really an important issue for almost all of them,” Sanders told KPBS in April.

But while Burnham and the Smart Border Coalition, a group that’s rallying behind border upgrades, are still pushing the project it’s not clear when it’ll meet any benchmarks – or if it’ll ever be operational.

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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