"Trolley in Tijuana" rendering / Photo courtesy of Cordoba Corp.

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Imagine stepping into an elevated trolley car in Tijuana — and moments later emerging across the border in the United States. No more hours spent inching forward on foot toward the San Ysidro Port of Entry. No more getting stuck in fume-choked lines of idling cars.  

The San Diego Association of Governments is supporting a private-sector study that looks at extending San Diego’s Blue Line Trolley over the border into Tijuana. If it sounds far-fetched, proponents point out that their idea is not so different from the Cross-Border Xpress, the airport pedestrian bridge connecting travelers in San Diego to Tijuana’s A.L. Rodriguez International Airport.

In this case, the aim is to cut wait times and reduce vehicle pollution at the San Ysidro Port of Entry — the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere.

SANDAG this month awarded $50,000 to Los Angeles-based Cordoba Corporation to research the idea — and come up with some detailed answers by September. What permits would it need? Who would use it? What would be the time frame? SANDAG envisions funding it through a private-public-partnership — but where precisely would the financing come from?

Few would dispute the need for a solution. In this case, the effort is being carried out as part of SANDAG’s 2021 Regional Plan. 

“We have huge issues with border congestion, it creates a lot of air quality issues, safety issues around the border,” Antoinette Meier, SANDAG’S senior director of regional planning, told me last week. “This is an opportunity to address them in a really sustainable way.”

To understand the situation at San Ysidro, look no further than last Friday and Saturday mornings, when pedestrians reported three-hour waits or even longer to cross into the United States. 

Among them was 17-year-old Omar Luna, a U.S. citizen who lives in Tijuana — but crossed Friday for his job at a fast-food restaurant in El Cajon. I reached out to him after seeing a photo of the line that he posted on a Facebook page about border wait times.

“It’s three hours in the sun, by the time you get there, you’re very tired,” Luna told me. He usually takes an hour to cross by 5:30 a.m. for a morning shift, but on this day, he was working in the afternoon, and the line caught him by surprise.

Operated by San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System, the Blue Line is familiar to many border crossers. The agency’s figures show that on an average weekday, more than 12,000 people board the line at San Ysidro. The agency “estimates the overwhelming majority are pedestrians who cross from Tijuana,” said spokesman Mark Olson.

But these pedestrian crossers are not the only potential source of cross-border trolley users. The idea is also to persuade a significant number of drivers to opt for the cross-border trolley — thus decreasing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions in the northbound car lanes.

A company that specializes in transportation infrastructure, Cordoba responded to an invitation issued by SANDAG last November for innovative private-sector proposals. The agency asked that the proposals focus on creating transportation connectors to ensure a system in San Diego County that is “faster, fairer and cleaner.” Of 18 submissions, Cordoba’s team was one three selected for funding and presented on Friday to the board of directors. 

All three teams in September will be invited to publicly present their refined concepts before a panel of experts. “And from there, we can decide whether we want to move forward with implementing any of these projects,” Meier said.

By reaching out to the private sector in this way — a first for SANDAG —  the hope is to generate some new ideas.  “The technology is advancing incredibly quickly, and we don’t want to assume we are the experts,” Meier said. “This allowed us to identify new technologies, new services, new business models, new ways of partnering that we probably wouldn’t have considered on our own.”

In an interview last week, Cordoba staff sketched out some of their preliminary proposals, which are subject to change as the study progresses. For now, Tijuana terminal would be set on Avenida Revolucion and passengers would be charged $5 to $8. They estimate 2 million fare-paying passengers the first year, but predict demand would quickly double.

“This will not be a costly system because we are all assuming that MTS is going to operate this. They already have the trains, they already have the infrastructure. So it’s really an extension of the same line by one mile,” said Conrado Ayala, Cordoba’s vice president for transportation infrastructure. 

Baja California’s government has also been looking at ways to streamline the border crossing. Kurt Honold, the Secretary of Economy and Innovation, told me earlier this year that the state is studying a proposal for a cross-border pedestrian tunnel that would connect Tijuana crossers with the Blue Line at San Ysidro.

Cordoba has already been in touch with the state of Baja California, where officials “are very willing and interested in collaborating with us,” Jacqueline Reynoso, the company’s director of programs and policy.

To move forward, a key first step will be securing a U.S. presidential permit necessary for any such cross-border project, Reynoso said.

When I asked pedestrian crosser Luna about what he thought interest might be in a cross-border trolley connection, he did not hesitate to answer: If they build it, people will come. Maybe too many people, he said.

“It sounds like a really good proposal, but they’d really have to think it through, because everybody would go there, do you understand?” he said. “It would also get full.”

In Other News

  • Heat deaths: Baja California’s desert capital, Mexicali, has been suffering through a heat wave, with temperatures as high as 118 degrees fahrenheit in recent days—and there have been fatal consequences. From late June through Friday, the state medical examiner’s office reported nine heat-related deaths. Dr. Cesar Gonzalez Baca, the chief state medical examiner, told RadarBC that the victims were primarily foreigners — migrants unaccustomed to the city’s scorching temperatures. (Reforma, Radarbc, La Jornada.)
  • Deported veteran returns: U.S. Army veteran Juan Salvador Quiroz crossed into the United States through the San Ysidro Port of Entry last week, nine years after he was deported to Mexico. Married with four children, Quiroz said he was granted humanitarian parole, due to his wife’s illness. (Telemundo, Getty Images)
  • Shift in deportation policy:  An undocumented San Diego resident with no criminal history was deported to Mexico earlier this month in what immigration attorneys say is a break from previous policy. Eduardo Sanchez was deported less than a week after a federal appeals court struck down guidance by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “prioritizing deportations based on significant criminal history or national history concerns,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
  • Plastic surgery probe: Baja California authorities are probing the death of a Guatemalan woman following plastic surgery in Tijuana. State officials said the hospital where the operation was to have taken place had been operating without a license. (San Diego Union-Tribune).
  • San Diegans move to Tijuana: The Covid-19 pandemic is one of several factors accelerating the trend of San Diegans moving to Tijuana, where rents are 62 percent lower, the New York Times reported.
  • Border journalism: Tijuana journalist Vicente Calderon called for greater cooperation between U.S. and Mexican reporters as he accepted the Journalist of the Year award on Thursday from the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “We can really collaborate, benefit not the press corps on both sides, but also the communities on both sides,” Calderon said.

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7 Comments

  1. According to Wikipedia there are currently 34 northbound lanes for cars at the San Ysidro crossing. The border expansion that was completed in 2019 called for a total of 62 car lanes.

    Can anyone tell us how often the 34 lanes have been open in the past five years and what were the wait times when they were all open? And what happened to the 62 lanes?

    1. That is the crux of the issue. Not enough staffing to meet demand, despite the expansion of San Ysidro. PEdWest —the new western pedestrian entry—remains closed. So this is prompting these searches for alternate solutions.

  2. So, there will be a three hour wait to board the trolley? The trolley is not the problem, the problem is customs and border protection and their processing times. Is that somehow going to go away for trolley riders? I don’t get it, except as another way for SANDAG to spend money.

  3. I can’t see a lot of Mexicans shopping in San Diego via a trolley. It would be too difficult to get to specific locations and to carry stuff back. How much more public tax money will be used to support the trolley? (I don’t believe $5 or $8 tickets will cover costs) and what is the purpose of the trolley?
    1. Make it easier to import labor from Mexico?
    2. Enable San Diegans to have lower cost communities in Mexico, with easier commuting?
    3. If it takes pedestrians (excerpt from story, see below) three hours to cross into the United States – how is a trolley going to speed that up?

    “…To understand the situation at San Ysidro, look no further than last Friday and Saturday mornings, when pedestrians reported three-hour waits or even longer to cross into the United States….”

  4. Amtrak and Caltrans should also really consider extending the Pacific Surfliner to Tijuana using the old San Diego-Arizona railroad right-of-way. That could cut down tons of congestion too.

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