Every year nearly half a million people at the San Ysidro border crossing find their way on to and off of buses and vans headed for or coming from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bakersfield and other cities to the north and east.

The intercity bus market is one element of a hectic scene at the busiest border crossing in the western hemisphere. The area is also home to the region’s busiest transit stop, and the terminus of a superhighway that runs the length of the West Coast.

A long-held vision to transform it all into a modern intermodal connection is not going well. The Metropolitan Transit System seized land to make it happen. But five years later, the deal hasn’t generated the money the agency forecasted. What arose is a disjointed solution that disappointed some San Ysidro residents and has now developed into a legal fight with the property owner of an adjacent McDonald’s.

That fight has grown deeply antagonistic, personal and expensive and has left the area only slightly improved but far from the harmonious plan that those invested in the area have spent decades imagining.

Back in 2003, and then again in 2012, MTS tried to make it easier, cheaper and safer for people to get where they’re going.

First, it spent $1.3 million to seize private property through eminent domain. The land is just north of the main pedestrian border crossing, and east of the trolley station.

The only thing separating MTS’s seized land and the trolley station is a two-story building home to a McDonald’s.

In 2012, the agency came up with a plan to turn that property into a bus depot. Not only would the agency make money on the deal, but it wouldn’t have to spend anything to improve the experience for travelers, the thinking went.

It didn’t work out that way.

The deal hasn’t generated a dollar for the public through five years, and some community groups are dissatisfied with the new bus terminal – which cost more than twice initial estimates.

In the meantime, MTS sued Grand Central West, the company that owns the McDonald’s building, in 2014. Miguel Aguirre, who runs the company, installed a doorway from his building to the bus terminal, which MTS alleges trespasses onto its property.

The case is expected to head to trial before the end of the year. So far, MTS has spent $381,000 on the lawsuit, not counting what it has spent covering the legal costs of the company that runs the bus terminal.

Last week, a judge tentatively sided with Grand Central West on a central piece of the case.

The Deal

The border crossing area is a mess. Experienced travelers know how to navigate it, but confusion reigns for anyone crossing for the first time.

“Mad Max comes to mind,” said Carlos Lacarra, a veteran San Diego Police Department officer who works in the area. “The problem is, it’s just a very small area. San Ysidro isn’t a destination – people are just going through.”

It’s been that way for years, and regional planners have long imagined a facility befitting the cross-border megaregion that civic boosters describe.

An improved bus station was meant to be part of that vision.

After MTS acquired the property that’s now a bus terminal in 2003, it signed a contract with Ace Parking to run it as a bus parking lot for 10 years.

That deal brought $11,000 for MTS and when it ended, MTS decided to see if it could come up with something better.

The agency didn’t put out a request for proposals from interested parties. Instead, it entered a sole-source deal with a company called SYPS. It’s a joint company of BriceHouse, a local company that runs concessions for both MTS and the North County Transit District, and First America, parent company of Greyhound, the largest bus company that operates out of San Ysidro.

The deal, approved in late 2012, would have SYPS build out an open-air bus terminal, and eventually pay MTS 65 percent of the money it brought in from renting out ticket kiosks to bus operators.

That same year, San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez, who is on the MTS board and represents the San Ysidro area, sent MTS CEO Paul Jablonski a letter raising concerns that the lease didn’t go through a competitive bidding process, as reported by KPBS this summer.

MTS has argued it doesn’t need to put leases out to bid, and that the deal was an extension of its existing lease with BriceHouse to manage concessions.

Nonetheless, the lease estimated improvements to the facility would cost $255,000, and that after it covered those costs, SYPS could start sending MTS $140,000 a year beginning in 2014.

The problems started right away.

The terminal ended up costing $538,000, according to MTS, after the agency amended the lease to allow for the more expensive construction.

Not everyone is impressed with the results.

“Casa Familiar is concerned about the so-called ‘improvements’ recently completed and would call them archaic at best,” the nonprofit community development group’s president, Andrea Skorepa, wrote to the MTS board in 2016. “Outdoor bathrooms, without complete privacy, open to the elements is unacceptable, offensive, and open disregard for decency of the hundreds of thousands of travelers that fill up the coffers of your controlled transportation operations.”

That’s a reference to public restrooms set behind metal cages. After paying 50 cents to enter the caged facility, travelers enter stalls with doors that are open at the bottom, exposing the feet of anyone who uses them to the outside world. MTS argues the design is necessary to make sure the restrooms are clean and easy to monitor.

Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Beyond the higher-than-expected costs and the disappointing facilities, the deal also isn’t generating any money for MTS.

MTS now doesn’t expect to make money until 2019 at the earliest. The original deal forecasted that by 2019, MTS would have made $840,000.

MTS, though, said despite the hiccups the facility is still an improvement for travelers, and at no expense to the agency.

“The lease has resulted in a far better facility (improved at no cost to the taxpayers), a centralized location for all services, a secure area, ADA access, restrooms and professional management,” MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said in an email.

SYPS now earns roughly $80,000 a year operating the facility.

The initial term of the lease is nearing its end. The deal is up in 2019, and MTS has the option to extend it on a year-to-year basis. Schupp said the agency has not yet determined what it’ll do after 2019.

But he also said MTS could redevelop the property for another use sometime in the future.

“The existing center is much improved,” he said. “In the short-term, it has the potential to earn non-fare revenue for MTS. In the long-term, this MTS-owned property at the International Border could be redeveloped for other purposes in the future.”

The Door

Aguirre had big plans for the McDonald’s building when he bought it in 2004.

He had already been buying and selling commercial property in the area for two decades, and said he spent the previous 10 years listening to talk of how that building could be the anchor for transportation options that operate out of the area.

That vision is spelled out in an article for Caltrans’ internal publication. The article comes with a headline only a wonky infrastructure-focused bureaucrat could love: “The Intermodal Hamburger: The San Ysidro Transit Center.” The article articulates a plan, including $4 million in state funds, to build a plaza for the trolley, local buses, intercity busses and pedestrians in and around the building Aguirre would buy a year later.

That plan is what coaxed Aguirre into buying the property, he said.

“That was my idea, about how the intermodal should work,” he said. “I didn’t think there’d be any big deal buying the building – I didn’t bother to formalize anything. The history was very clear.”

Using his building for the transit center comes with one main advantage: Its elevator would let elderly or disabled travelers get to the bus terminal without having to trek up the hill on either side of the building.

The area is also filled with people called “wildcats”: unlicensed van operators who walk around the trolley and bus terminal, looking for border-crossers with luggage and trying to sell them tickets before they get to the lawfully operating bus companies.

LaCarra, the SDPD officer, said wildcats are a long-running problem in the area. The vehicles are unregulated.

“Sometimes they’ll tell people they’re taking them one place, then they just take them someplace else,” LaCarra said. “The drivers aren’t vetted, we don’t know anything about them. We want the public using safe transportation options. It’s a public safety concern. People traveling through, if they look like vacationers or have luggage, are just bombarded by wildcatters, and they might not know the difference.”

Centralizing ticket sales inside the building, and eliminating the circuitous route people have to take to the bus terminal, could make life harder on the wildcats.

Instead, MTS went with the SYPS deal, which doesn’t rely on Aguirre’s building at all.

In 2005, MTS had agreed to let Aguirre build a doorway from the second floor of his building to MTS’s property on the other side, but specified that it would only be used as an emergency exit.

Aguirre didn’t follow that agreement.

By 2014, once the bus terminal was operating, Aguirre had installed glass doors to let customers and pedestrians cross freely from his property to the MTS bus station. MTS started issuing cease-and-desist notices to alert him he was trespassing. It eventually sued at the end of that year.

Not only is Aguirre trespassing, MTS argues, but doing so allows him to compete directly with SYPS; Aguirre now leases space on the second floor to other bus companies that rent from him instead of MTS’s contractor. He had also failed to secure the proper permits for the door and an elevator he built to make the second floor ADA-accessible. He got the necessary permits later on.

“That made me look bad, like some kind of scofflaw,” Aguirre said. “Ultimately I guess it’s my responsibility, but they were human errors. I wasn’t trying to screw anybody by not getting a permit.”

MTS has spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars on the suit because it thinks it’s got a slam-dunk case. Last month, agency lawyers dismissed a settlement offer, saying they hadn’t even presented it to the board because the facts of the case are so clearly on their side.

The agency thinks it’s simple: Aguirre illegally opened a doorway onto its property, making his property more valuable at MTS’s expense.

MTS’s spokesman said Aguirre wants something of value for free, and broke the law to get it.

“GCW is attempting to take an easement to benefit its own economic interests and to bind MTS to a long-term use that supports the GCW building, all without permission from MTS or compensation to the taxpayer,” Schupp said in a statement. “MTS has an obligation to protect its public assets.”

And for most of the case, it did seem MTS was skating to victory. In early 2016, the court issued a preliminary injunction forcing Aguirre to close the doorway.

That was before a judge’s tentative ruling last week.

Judge Katherine Bacal on Friday granted the company’s request to lift the preliminary injunction, and re-open the doorway.

GCW’s lawyers argue a 1978 case from San Francisco says that if a public agency builds something that is in effect a public right of way, like a plaza or street or sidewalk, anyone who owns property abutting that right of way has a fundamental right to access it.

They argue the bus terminal was designed to be a walkway to the border, and that plenty of people use it that way, which means they’re entitled to access that public space.

Bacal ruled that argument stands a good chance of holding up in court.

“If Grand Central is able to prove up its claim as an abutting owner, then pursuant to Short Line (the 1978 case) it would have a right to access the walkway by operation of law, thereby negating MTS’s trespass claim … In light of this, the Court cannot find that MTS is likely to prevail on the merits.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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