Travelers cross into Tijuana using the San Ysidro Port of Entry. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Ten years and roughly $741 million later, the San Ysidro Port of Entry expansion has finally been completed.

Over the past decade, the expansion had occurred in three phases. The third phase was completed earlier this month.

Phase 1 was PedWest, a 22,000-square foot facility at the western side at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. It added 14 pedestrian lanes – 12 northbound and two reversible – that opened in July 2016.

Then the adjacent Virginia Avenue Transit Center also opened to provide access to MTS buses and designated pick-up areas for taxis and private vehicles near the new facility. The transit center cost about $8 million and was jointly funded by the General Services Administration, the Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans.

PedEast added an additional 22 pedestrian lanes to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The final segment of Phase 2 included the renovation of the historic customs house and construction of four southbound pedestrian processing lanes, a pedestrian plaza and a dedicated bus lane.

Phase 3 included the expansion and realignment of the I-5 South freeway, which included 10 lanes with southbound primary and secondary inspection facilities, eight northbound vehicle processing lanes with 15 primary inspection booths, an employee parking structure and an administration building.

The San Diego Association of Governments estimates that vehicle traffic at the Port of Entry will increase 87 percent by 2030. Currently, the border crossing processes an average of 70,000 northbound vehicle passengers and 20,000 pedestrians per day, according to the GSA.

The seeds for this expansion and other projects, like the planned Otay Mesa East Border Crossing, were planted more than 10 years ago, and came together in a pilot Border Master Plan report in 2008 that discussed the big-picture planning needs of the California-Baja border. Only a year earlier, the San Diego Regional Association of Governments estimated that delays at the border between San Diego County and Baja California cost the United States $7.2 billion in gross output and more than 62,000 jobs.

But designing – and carrying out – the expansion of one of the world’s busiest international border crossings is a unique task. I spoke with Arun Kaiwar, who became involved as the project’s architect in 2015, about some of the challenges he faced, both in design and construction.

One of the biggest was having to carry out the expansion without ever closing the port of entry. Shutting down the port of entry is very rare and has serious economic ramifications.

“We had to be very conscientious of how we sequenced the project to keep the port operational,” Kaiwar said. “The site was continuously shifting so we could still process people. We had to make sure people had a safe path to travel through the construction area.”

There was only one serious impact that Kaiwar notes during the installation of a pedestrian bridge crossing the I-5, which closed that part of the highway for a few hours one day in September 2017. In 2011, before Kaiwar came onto the project, scaffolding on a construction site related to the expansion fell and injured roughly a dozen people, shutting down vehicle lanes into the U.S. for part of the day.

And he faced a design challenge in grappling with the paradox of the border: It must keep out people and goods trying to enter without permission but still facilitate the many legitimate crossings of students, workers and tourists that are vital to our economy and culture.

“The most fascinating thing about these ports of entries are their in-built dichotomy,” Kaiwar said. “It has to be safe and secure, but it also is a gateway between countries. In San Diego and Tijuana, people go back and forth every day, so it also needs to be inviting. It’s public architecture.”

Kaiwar said he had to figure out a way to make people who are undergoing inspection still feel as comfortable and dignified as possible.

“It wasn’t overtly designed to look safe,” Kaiwar said. “It’s airy. There’s a lot of daylight. If you look at where pedestrians come in, there is a wide canopy, that was intentionally kept wide and airy. As you come up to the building, you have this beautiful entry way with three monumental doors to give people a sense of entry and welcome to the country.”

Before his firm, Stantec, was even chosen to work on the project, Kaiwar said he made an effort to speak with high school students who crossed the border regularly. From their input, he realized that there needed to be better wayfinding at the port of entry. Those who cross regularly are trying to find the quickest line to cross as efficiently as possible. He translated that into clearer signage and a layout that allows you to see which direction you need to go as you approach.

Before working on the port of entry expansion, he helped design the Cross Border Xpress, which allows people to cross directly from San Diego to Tijuana’s airport.

“These border crossings have tremendous impacts and our objective was to make sure our design had a positive impact on the community,” Kaiwar said. “People aren’t just going to visit, but this is a part of people’s daily journey and we wanted to create an experience that is more restorative.”

More Border News

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...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.