San Diego is poised to get the first new Southwest border port of entry in at least 30 years, and it's being built as a toll crossing with the main goal of improving commercial-truck wait times.
With a target opening date of 2017, the Otay Mesa East port of entry is, yes, east of the Otay port by about two miles. It's going in on SANDAG's direction, with Caltrans providing the roads and Mexico fully supporting the plan.
"We need this. We really really want this," said Xavier Peniche, Tijuana's secretary for economic development. "Many of our families share our border, many of us commute on a daily basis."
The key feature: the promise of 20-minute wait times to cross the border. The proposal-in-motion involves ten commercial-vehicle lanes and ten private-vehicle lanes and will cost about $550 million, a number SANDAG economist calls "a work in progress."
The SANDAG plan is build it as a toll crossing and hand it over to the feds to run it, with the money generated by the tolls paying the cost of running it.
"We had to figure out a way to pay for it that wasn't taxpayer dollars," SANDAG economist Marney Cox said. "This way, people who use it pay for it and those who don't, don't."
The current plan is to have the new port open 16 hours a day, with the toll varying from around $2 at off-peak hours to up to $17 during peak hours. The predicted median toll for passenger vehicles is $2.35, while commercial trucks are looking at a median toll of $15.45.
So far, Caltrans has broken ground and is building the State Route 11 extension from the 905 east, between Otay Mesa Road and Airway Drive. The next step is building the highway to the border, Cox said, and the final step is building the actual facility that's still on the drawing board.
"We still have details to work out with Customs and Border Protection and with Tijuana," Cox said. "We expect we'll always have to pay CBP to be there."
At opening, planners expect to attract about 20 percent of northbound border traffic, with particular emphasis on the commercial traffic that gets trapped idling for hours in the maze of Otay Mesa's port. Relatively safe cargo is mixed in with cargo that demands a lot of inspection, so every shipper must wait.
"The inefficiency of the Otay Mesa crossing is one of the driving forces behind this plan," Cox said. "There's little room for improvements on the south side and there's little room for design efficiency to sort [vehicles] by commodity on the north."
South County economic boosters talked about how the long wait times — documented in a ten-year-old SANDAG study — are dampening a booming regional economy where businesses work on both sides of the border, with design, engineering and headquarters to the north and manufacturing to the south.
Alejandra Mier y Tieran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce, described the cross-border business model as "near-shoring" and pointed out that the South Bay economy is growing and could grow faster.
"If the ports of entry don't work, we lose that opportunity," she said.
The model presented last Friday, January 9, predicted that the majority of northbound vehicles would arrive between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. — and pay the highest tolls because of the morning surge.
National City mayor Ron Morrison worried about how the highways would look for commuters during morning rush hour.
"Why would you funnel traffic onto the 905 and then the 805 and not get the 125 connectors working?" he asked. "Anyone who has been on the 805 in the morning in a pedestrian car is already in a tunnel of trucks."