Baja When it comes to crossing the border, Carlos Hermosillo plays it by ear. As he gets close to the San Ysidro crossing, he calls 700-7000 on his cell phone, and a recording gives him the approximate wait time. On Thursday, July 3, at 1:00 p.m., the recording said there were 300 cars lined up at the port of entry; the wait was over two hours. Hermosillo went to plan B. He parked his car in Tijuana at a $5 all-day parking lot and walked across to the trolley.
“It still took me one-half hour to get across,” says Hermosillo in slightly accented English.
Cal State Fullerton student Genaro Rincón crosses into the United States at least once a week. Before he leaves his house in Tijuana, he tunes in to Radio Latina 104.5 to hear updates on the wait at the pedestrian checkpoint. Occasionally, even with the heads-up, he’s had to wait for more than an hour.
For Hermosillo and Rincón, long waits are just part of crossing into the United States, but for others, they have become so much of a hassle that the hemisphere’s busiest border crossing is not as busy as it once was. More than 64.9 million people crossed the border at San Ysidro during fiscal year 2003. In just four years, says U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that number has dropped by nearly 10.8 million.
Since 9/11, the wait has become so bad for Hector Lam that he’s cut back on trips into the United States. He used to come three times a week to see family and run errands. “I cross in my car,” he says. “It used to be that after the morning chaos, between 9:00 and noon, an average wait of 15 minutes to cross was normal, and I would cross sometimes even more. Now I cross only once a week, to see my kids and do all the things that I used to do in several trips.” Lam says that on good days, with few cars in line, it still takes him nearly an hour to cross.
According to Mark Baza at Caltrans, border delays for people and freight shipments cost San Diego County and Baja California an estimated $4.2 billion and over 42,000 jobs in 2007.
Erik Salazar, a resident of Playas de Tijuana, used to work in National City. But he had to leave his house three hours before he was expected to clock in. That gave him just enough time to drive to the border, park his car, get through Customs, and ride the trolley to work. Most days it would take him over 40 minutes to get through the pedestrian checkpoint. The long waits and early mornings prompted a career change for Salazar. Now he works in Mexico.
Even people who have SENTRI cards, designed to speed up crossings, are experiencing lengthy delays. Over 100,000 cards have been issued in the United States since 1995, says Vince Bond, public relations officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Harlan Pebley went through the background check and private interview with Customs officers and paid the $122 to get a SENTRI pass. He drives from San Diego to his second home in Campo López, near the K-55 marker in Baja California, three times a month. Pebley’s been making the trek for the past 40 years and has seen a lot of changes. “You know, 15 to 20 years ago, you could get through in about 5 to 10 minutes. The entire trip would take me a little over 20 minutes, but all that changed since they started with the heightened security. It used to be that the border guys wouldn’t even get off of their stool. They would just ask what you bought in Mexico and wave you through. Now, even with the SENTRI pass, it takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes just at the border. The other lanes are usually backed up to the bridge.”
Some other alternatives do exist for border crossers. For $5 they can take a bus, operated by Mexicoach, from downtown Tijuana to the port of entry at San Ysidro. The bus drops off passengers at Customs, allowing them to bypass the pedestrian line. But Jorge Gonzáles, administrative director for Mexicoach, says that while it usually takes 25 to 30 minutes for buses to get to the border, sometimes it takes two hours. “We’re supposed to have a lane just for the buses, but it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “There’s a lot of traffic that gets in the way and holds everything up, and there’s nothing we can do.”
Unfortunately, there are few signs of immediate improvement. Congressman Bob Filner, of the 51st Congressional District, feels the federal government hasn’t wanted to improve. “Since 9/11, the executive department doesn’t want an efficient border,” he says. “They have decided that long lines and arbitrary waits of one, two, three hours is good security. I think that’s ridiculous; an efficient border is a more secure border.”
Filner believes that some of the issues can be addressed with more manpower and updated technology. “Almost 99 percent of the people that cross the border cross regularly. Giving those people background checks and smart cards and concentrating on the 1 percent we don’t know would make more sense, but they don’t want that. They don’t want an efficient border. They could do it easily by supplying more funding for staffing to open up all of the gates around the clock or by investing in new technology, like retinal scans.”
Vincent Bond of Customs says there are mandates in place for specific security checks that Customs officers need to perform. “We are very, very aware of the economic impact and the feelings of the community,” he says, “but there is an ever-present threat from narcotics smugglers and the ever-present threat of smuggling people in trunks and under blankets — it happens all of the time. There is a tightrope that our officers walk, having to facilitate the entry of traffic but at the same time denying entrance to dangerous people and dangerous things.”
Long-range improvements are planned, including expansion of the port at San Ysidro and construction of a new port two miles east of the port at Otay Mesa.
The projects seem to be gaining ground. Ramon Riesgo, project director for the U.S. General Services Administration, is working on the $577 million project at San Ysidro. He hopes to begin construction next year.
Riesgo says the San Ysidro project’s first two phases will alleviate most of the current wait times. Phase one will add more booths in the primary inspection area, implementing a “two-tier” system wherein two inspection booths in each of the 24 lanes will be operational at the same time. During the first two phases, the old facility will be demolished in stages and a new facility built, including primary and secondary inspection areas, a pedestrian inspection area and bridge, an employee parking structure, and an administration building.
The third and final phase, and the most ambitious, will reroute southbound traffic. Beginning in 2012, I-5 south will be realigned west to Virginia Avenue, where Mexico plans to replace El Chaparral, its now-defunct truck checkpoint facility, with a new port of entry and a new road for the traffic to meet up. The Mexican government has pledged its cooperation, though Riesgo says that a project of this size and cost should always have some flexibility.
Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, or Otay 2, is also in the works. The State of California will build the new port, as well as a 2.7-mile toll road leading to it. State Route 11 will originate at the SR 125/905 interchange. On the other side of the border, the road will turn into the proposed Tijuana 2000 Bypass Highway in Baja California and will link up to the Tijuana-Tecate and Tijuana-Ensenada toll roads.
On September 30, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill, sponsored by Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny, authorizing SANDAG to collect tolls on the new road. “The fees would be used to pay for environmental studies, project design and construction of the East Otay Mesa Port and SR 11,” wrote Moreno Ducheny in an email.
The completion date for each project is still at least six years out.