For those who cross the border between San Diego and Tijuana – an estimated 150,000 people a day — there are some big changes on the horizon.
A future pedestrian crossing that would include a special lane for bikers and handicapped crossers. More northbound vehicle lanes. By December, a new rapid-transit bus route in Tijuana, and by summer 2016, a new $8 million transit center in San Ysidro.
And then there are the visions of what this intense cross-border area can become. These are farther off, still lacking government approval and financing, but very much in the conversation as the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere undergoes a $741 million overhaul.
Stalled for years, the San Ysidro Port of Entry expansion project has now been fully funded by Congress and is moving forward. Farther east, so is another project, this one privately financed: a new port of entry that will be limited to toll-paying ticketed airline passengers using Tijuana’s A.L. Rodríguez International Airport. Another future toll crossing, Otay East, seen as a relief valve for both passenger and commercial traffic, is also on the horizon.
“We’re living in an interesting moment,” said Gastón Luken Garza, a former Mexican federal legislator and member of the Smart Border Coalition, a binational group that lobbies for more efficient crossings. “There is dramatic change in the way we’re using the border.”
The purpose, planners say, is to open opportunities both in San Diego County and Baja California. “It’s one economic region,” said Carlos López, chief infrastructure planner for the Baja California state government. “The aim is to form a secure and rapid economic zone, one that we can say is competitive.”
Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, speaks of a similar vision: “The bottom line,” he said, “is to enhance the economy of Tijuana and San Diego.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, sauntered past the rows of retail businesses on San Ysidro Boulevard, many heavily dependent on shoppers from Mexico. “I got here nine years ago in July,” Wells said. “I feel like for the first time I’m sitting back and starting to see fruit. Wait times are coming down. I’ve got stuff I can start pointing to.”
About a mile away in Tijuana, Frank Carrillo sat at his offices at the Simnsa medical building, where the majority of patients are insured workers from San Diego. More efficient border crossings and demand for medical care “create a very unique economic-business opportunity for Baja California,” Carrillo said. “Those of us who understand this are expanding our facilities and training our human resources to prepare for this avalanche of patients.”
For many, the future is rich with possibilities. “This area is the door or mixing chamber of the Americas, therefore, it’s all about flows and mobility,” said René Peralta, a Tijuana architect who teaches at Woodbury University in San Diego. “It’s the most crossed border in the world, and it deserves a comprehensive project that understands the development of what the future of borders will be.”
But Peralta also sees pitfalls: “Unfortunately, private investment and public-planning agencies seem not always to be on the same page.”
While infrastructure is playing a key role in changing the border-crossing experience, so are other factors such as technology and cross-border collaboration. Pete Flores, who heads the San Diego field office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said his agency is looking at pilot programs aimed at streamlining processing at the border.
One involves using facial recognition technology for northbound pedestrian crossers. And as Congress presses CBP to monitor the departure of foreigners from the country, another program would involve sharing information with Mexican authorities — a practice that already has been tested on the northern border with Canada.
The idea, Flores said, is “what can we do together to help simplify the process and help those who are using our borders, not only in the commercial environment but also in the passenger environment?”
The challenges are not over.
“Border projects take many years of planning, of negotiations and agreements,” said Alfonso Padrés, who heads the Baja California office for Mexico’s Communications and Transportation Secretariat. “Once agreements are reached, one needs to obtain funding before anything can more forward.”
A more efficient border creates its own challenges and will bring new needs to the region.
“What will happen when more people want to cross?” asks Oscar Escobedo, Baja California’s tourism secretary. “It will make the border waits longer.”