Tijuana may finally be making progress on improving its public transit.

It’s been a long time coming. The city’s current bus fleet, for instance, is made up of secondhand U.S. school buses, painted in multicolor and privately run. The city’s mayor has acknowledged the issue.

But Tijuana has begun construction on a 23-mile bus rapid transit system – a higher-quality bus service with dedicated lanes, larger and nicer stations and more regular service. It’s expected to be finished in less than a year and will run up to the Puerta Mexico, the Mexican side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The city has also has laid out plans for a light-rail system that links up to the Mexican portion of the railroad known as the Desert Line, or the Via Corta, which is also being renovated for use as a cargo train at night and a passenger train during the day.

Those plans, however, are still just plans. It’s far from a sure thing they’ll ever come to pass.

Oscar A. Cortes, executive coordinator of Binational Relations for the Federation of Civil Engineers from Mexico, said these improvements were a long time coming, but now they’re needed to continue the urban revitalization Tijuana’s gone through in recent years.

“But to continue to do this, we need to pay attention to how we move people,” Cortes said in Spanish.

The BRT will go from Florido, in the southeastern part of Tijuana, to Puerta Mexico, running down Avenida Revolucion and on highways beside the Tijuana River Channel. The project has been in the planning stages for the past four years. It received a grant of roughly $50 million from the Mexican government. Known as La Ruta Troncal or Ruta 1, the BRT will provide service to an estimated 300,000 passengers daily, for the price of a little less than a dollar per ride, said Cortes.

The renovation of the Via Corta, a freight rail that runs from Tecate to Tijuana, is still in its conceptual stages, with plan proposals and studies under way.

The company that’s handling the renovation of the freight line, as well as the Baja government, both presented their visions for the cross-border train and urban light-rail line during the October meeting of a binational group focusing on bridge and border crossing issues, said a spokesperson of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.

“Right now, this railroad doesn’t do anything,” Cortes said, in Spanish. “It’s causing big economic delays in the region because we can’t use it.”

A trolley system proposal has also been laid out in a planning document from the Baja secretary of infrastructure and urban development. It is proposed to span about 20 kilometers in Tijuana and could serve 65,000 passengers and would ultimately connect with Via Corta. But it’s is in the very early stages and doesn’t have a funding source yet, Cortes said.

BRT projects have been the public transit of choice in many cities in Latin America, said Dario Hidalgo, director of integrated transport at EMBARQ, a World Resources Institute program that helps the Mexican government oversee public transportation projects it finances.

“Most cities have chosen BRT and bus improvements for its cost-effectiveness,” said Hidalgo. “There are some initiatives for light rail and rail in Tijuana, but as with any federal funding they need to go through an evaluation process and many projects don’t make a cut.”

San Diego’s business community is keeping a close eye on Tijuana’s public transit investments.

Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said a strong public transportation attracts a healthy workforce, which then attracts more business investment.

“We’re seeing more business operations every day expanding into Baja, rather than expanding into Asia,” Avila said. “If we can successfully gain a location in Baja for them to expand, that’s a big win for San Diego. Transportation and infrastructure is a huge thing that business takes a look at.”

Cortes agreed.

“There is a fundamental principle,” he said, in Spanish. “The level of service is important to the economy. It moves cargo, it moves services, it moves workers.”

While Tijuana plows ahead, finally improving its public transit system, there are concerns that planning at the border crossing isn’t keeping pace.

There are also plans to create better transportation hubs on both sides of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

“That’s still the question,” said Cortes. “How to connect it with the border? It’s not connected. The BRT is only integrated with the city streets.”

That’s the role that the chamber is trying to play, Avila said. They’ve been urging the Mexican government to send them more information on their transportation projects, in hopes that regional planners in San Diego can incorporate these projects into their investments at the San Ysidro border crossing. For example, as Tijuana’s public transportation to its side of the border improves, pedestrian traffic across the border may increase.

“All of these public transportation projects, they’re just as critical to business in Tijuana as they are in San Diego,” said Avila. “But it’s amazing how difficult it can be for the two sides to communicate and keep each other in mind.”

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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