On both sides of the double border fence that separates this stretch of Tijuana and San Diego, workers are preparing for the day it will be torn down – to make way for a new border crossing.
The much-anticipated Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, a toll crossing for cargo and passenger traffic planned in coordination with Mexico, has been moving forward, despite some delays. The California Transportation Commission is expected to approve a $140-million state grant later this month – a key step for financing the port’s construction.
Otay East is an innovative project that has been decades in the making. It involves far more than the construction of a port of entry. It also includes the building of a toll plaza, and roads and bridges to access the port – including an extension of California’s State Route 11.
The future port will allow toll-paying commercial and passenger vehicles to cross faster than at San Diego’s two other land ports – San Ysidro and Otay Mesa. And for the “dynamic pricing” system to work, authorities need to accurately measure wait times. Just coming this far has involved many pieces falling into place, with partnerships among multiple agencies on both sides of the border.
Yet 10 months after public officials and politicians from both countries gathered on the U.S. side for a groundbreaking ceremony, there are no structures on the site – just earth-moving equipment preparing for what’s to come. Upbeat predictions of a 2024 opening – maybe even 2023 – now have given way to 2026.
To better understand the status of this complex project, I spoke with two officials in San Diego who are playing lead roles in moving it forward. Maria Rodriguez-Molina is project director at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). Mario Orso is chief deputy district director in San Diego at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Voice of San Diego: Let’s start with the latest news. Why is this $140 million from the state of California so critical to the project?
Rodriguez-Molina: We have a complete financial strategy now. We have identified all the sources of funding to be able to construct the entire facility. We were missing that $140 million to fill the bucket.
Voice: This is a roughly $600 million project for the U.S. side. Last September, the Department of Transportation announced a $150 million grant for Otay East. And once the state grant is approved, you will have raised a total of $290 million. How do you propose to pay for the other half?
Rodriguez-Molina: We have completed a traffic and revenue study that highlights the fact that we can borrow about $300 million. That’s the remaining part we need. SANDAG will actually go ahead and sell bonds. And the other part will be a TIFIA loan, which is a federal loan with a very low interest rate.
Voice: How large will this future port be?
Orso: We’re going to just build a moderate size facility, kind of like Calexico East at the beginning. Then the market and the traveler demand will guide us as to how much it grows. The main goal is to open for business as soon as possible, provide some relief, and then let the facility grow as needed.
Rodriguez-Molina: We have a preliminary agreement (with U.S. Customs and Border Protection) on doing five cargo lanes northbound and five southbound. And then seven passenger lanes northbound and then another seven southbound.
Voice: Last year, at a binational summit, authorities spoke of a 2024 opening, and even possibly 2023. Now you are saying 2026, if all falls into place. What’s taking so long?
Rodriguez-Molina: Innovation, sometimes it’s hard. It has a lot of benefits because we are bringing a new port of entry to the region, but it has its challenges.
Orso: This definitely goes far, far beyond a Cross Border Xpress (a privately financed crossing from San Diego to Tijuana Airport) or other models. And like Maria said, we’re treading in new waters. And that sometimes is hard for people to understand and move forward with it.
Voice: You’ve said that one of the hurdles has been reaching a staffing agreement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What is the status of these talks?
Orso: They have agreed to be working with us on the staffing and putting it in (their five-year budget plan). Now the type of things we’re working out are the mechanics of how we operate this building, how we maintain the building and the technology.
We’re delayed about a year and a couple of months due to those negotiations, which are very necessary, right? You don’t want to open up something that is not staffed because nobody’s going to loan us money. It is a complex endeavor and a deal that doesn’t have any prior blueprints.
Voice: In Mexico, the project is called Otay II. Authorities there say their side is fully funded through a customs fund, and the Mexican military has been put in charge of construction. Access roads and bridges in Tijuana are being built, and other preparations have been taking place. Mexico says its side will be completed at 11 p.m. on Dec. 23 of this year. What can you tell us?
Orso: Our Mexican partners are moving at lightning speed. They have acquired most of the right-of-way. They have cleared the port of entry site. They began their connector (roadways). They’ve moved the power towers (electric transmission towers that were causing obstruction) and they probably are going to start some elements of the port of entry pretty soon.
I would say they would probably be finished with the civil (construction) portion (by Dec. 23). But the technology and getting it rolling, that takes a little time and I think that’s something we need to work on jointly with our Mexican partners.
Voice: I’ve read about the border wait times app that Caltrans and SANDAG are preparing to launch this summer for the San Diego vehicular ports of entry. In the future, this information will help drivers decide whether to pay a toll to drive through more quickly Otay East. As you move forward, what are you learning about the border?
Orso: Otay Mesa has forced us to look at the border as a system. If it wasn’t because of Otay Mesa East, we wouldn’t be putting in fiber optics and trying to connect all the border crossings and their transportation facilities. We’re going through growing pains to create these support systems that need to exist.
Voice: This is a complicated project, with many components.
Bottom line, in two sentences, what should the public know at this point about Otay Mesa East?
Orso: We’re getting closer and we can see the light at the other end of the tunnel. It’s not a train approaching it. It is the real light.
In Other News
- Tijuana leader seeks military protection: Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said she will move temporarily to a military base in the city, the 28th Infantry Battalion, after receiving threats. Her decision has come weeks after one of her bodyguards was injured in an attack. The mayor’s move has prompted criticism from business leaders for the signal it sends about the city’s security situation. The mayor told a political group that Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, suggested she move across the border. The mayor, who has recently married a U.S. citizen, said she declined, as “that would mean fleeing.” (Zeta, Punto Norte, El Pais, Associated Press, Info Savia, San Diego Union-Tribune)
- Drug rivalries: An intensified battle among drug traffickers in Tijuana and Mexicali for access to ports of entry has been driving up recent violence in Baja California, the Mexico City newspaper Reforma reported. Quoting unnamed Mexican military sources, the newspaper also cited other factors, such as protection rackets that extort small businesses and migrants, and neighborhood drug sales.
- U.S. school holds Tijuana graduation ceremony: Southwestern College in Chula Vista, where many students have ties to Mexico, for the first time held a graduation ceremony in Tijuana this month.
- A plea for donations to soup kitchen and shelter: Proyecto Salesiano, which shelters migrants and supplies more than 800 meals a day is at risk of closing as volunteers and donations have dwindled and costs have been rising.
- Tijuana’s flourishing food scene: The Los Angeles website L.A. TACO celebrated “Tijuana Week” this month with a series of stories focusing on the city’s food scene written by students from the University of Southern California. Led by editor Javier Cabral, the students spent two weeks exploring the city’s culinary offerings, and the result includes a pocket guide. “Like L.A, Tijuana is often misunderstood and easy to judge,” Cabral writes. “Tijuana is a lot like Los Ángeles; it’s a big, insanely busy city full of hardworking people with the biggest hearts if you give a damn enough to get to know them.”
- Also, foodies should not miss this cover story in the San Diego Reader about the city’s varied seafood offerings, by tour guide and freelance writer Matthew Suarez. He focused on “some of the most unique seafood tacos, tostadas, or other seafood presentations in this town, the ones that I find myself going back to again and again.”
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