Truckers who must use the Otay Mesa port have Tijuana border crossing worst

From half a day to sometimes more

— Short southbound and long northbound waits are not always the norm at la frontera internacional. During the weekday evening rush hour, the southbound wait at San Ysidro is often more than an hour. This nightly southbound situation is one of the problems Oscar Escobedo, president of the Consejo de Desarrollo Económico de Tijuana (Tijuana Economic Development Council), says his group has developed solutions for.

Escobedo sits at the corner of a conference table in fourth-floor Consejo offices near the site of the partially demolished downtown bullring. The table is big enough to seat 40 people. Sporting the brush mustache so common among Mexican men in their 50s, Escobedo, a restaurant and nightclub owner, is sharply dressed in a black suede jacket over a blue turtleneck. His diamond-studded wedding ring sparkles in the spring sunlight coming in the windows. He looks out those windows over the rooftops of Tijuana toward the San Ysidro border port as he discusses a solution his group has formulated for long evening southbound waits. "Before Otay Mesa was built," he says, "the commercial crossing was just west of San Ysidro. In the U.S., it's called Virginia Street because that's the street that feeds it. In Mexico, we call it Chaparral. Because it was an operational border port in the past, it already has the binational permits to operate. They were never canceled. I think we could take advantage of that fact by reopening Chaparral/Virginia Street now. We don't have to wait until 2012."

The year 2012 is when United States federal authorities hope to open a greatly expanded San Diego-Tijuana border crossing.

"Between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.," Escobedo continues, "there is a long wait to come into Mexico. And it's mostly the same people who had to wait more than an hour to get into the U.S. that morning. They have to wait another hour to get back into Mexico. So one of our proposals is, why don't we work on opening the Chaparral from 3:30 to 6:30 every day so we can handle some of that southbound traffic?"

Contacted by e-mail through a press relations officer, Adele Fasano, the United States Customs and Border Protection official in charge of the San Diego field office, responds, "The El Chaparral/Virginia Street southbound crossing is a key component in the planned San Ysidro Redesign Project. However making it operational would be very complex. First, the highway infrastructure would need to be designed, funded, and built to handle the increased traffic. Surface streets simply cannot handle this large amount of traffic. This issue would have to be addressed by the appropriate agencies. CBP is not responsible for addressing road access to ports of entry."

Escobedo says he and his group understand the infrastructure problem and have a solution. "We've talked to Mexican customs, and they say that there are 1.6 hectares [about four acres] of land on the Mexican side. That's enough space for an 18-lane border crossing and enough space for the cars to be backed up on the Mexican side, not on U.S. surface streets. And we could try it out maybe with the people who have the SENTRI pass, as a pilot program. And when both sides get the hang of it, we could open it up to other people."

SENTRI stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Identification. Customs and Border Protection issues SENTRI passes to people from either country who are deemed low risks for illegal border activity. The pass, which costs $129, allows officials at the border to identify both the car and driver electronically as they approach the inspection gate. The approved car and pass holder must be together at the crossing. Lanes 2 and 3, to the far right as you come north, are dedicated to SENTRI users. (Lane 1 is for buses.) The San Diego field office of Customs and Border Protection has over 90,000 SENTRI users in its system. They can use the pass any time of the day, but according to Escobedo, most of them use it at the same time of day, when they're trying to get to work in the morning. "At that time," he says, "it's overused. You can see 150 cars in each of the SENTRI lanes. We know that U.S. Customs officials can handle 100 to 120 cars per hour per lane. So you can do the math as far as the wait goes. But at other times, the SENTRI lanes are underused, maybe 8 or 10 cars. What we propose is that cards be given out for people to use the SENTRI lanes during specific hours when they are underused. U.S. Customs could give out exactly the number of time-specific cards that they can handle for that hour. So if they can handle 110 people between 6:30 and 7:30, they give out exactly 110 cards. As a pilot program, the cards could be given to a specific group, students maybe."

In response to this idea, Fasano wrote, "Lanes four and five are convertible for use as either SENTRI or regular traffic. We have also begun work to expand the number of SENTRI lanes to address increasing enrollment."

Another idea the Consejo de Desarrollo Económico champions is stacked inspection booths. Instead of one booth and one officer per lane, every lane would have two of each. It wouldn't cut waits in half, because a cleared car at the south booth might have to wait behind a car still being inspected at the north booth. But it would increase efficiency and shorten waits. This idea has met with more acceptance in the U.S. and was tried for a month early this year. Fasano says, "CBP initiated a 'stacked booth' pilot project at San Ysidro in January 2007 on lane 5 for both SENTRI and regular traffic modes.... CBP is in the process of gathering data on this pilot project to evaluate whether the concept should be expanded to other lanes."

Of all northbound crossers, truckers -- who must use the Otay Mesa port -- have it worst. "It takes anywhere from half a day to sometimes more for them to get across," Escobedo says. "And they don't have restrooms, they don't have food services, they don't have anything. It's a big headache for the drivers, and it's inefficient for the companies to have trucks and manpower just sitting there. What we are proposing is that U.S. officials come to the maquiladoras, check the trucks as they're being loaded, seal them at the maquiladora, and have them cross the border immediately, because they've already been inspected and sealed by a U.S. official. We would have to lobby officials in both countries to make that project work, but I don't think it would be that difficult."

Fasano responds, "The primary mission of CBP is to combat terrorism and to prevent instruments of terror from entering or leaving the United States.... Our goal is to secure our Nation's borders, but to achieve it in a way that does not stifle the flow of legitimate trade and travel.... In regards to the proposal about U.S. officials working in Mexico to pre-clear commercial trucks, CBP currently does not pre-clear commercial cargo on foreign soil in any mode of transportation. We do have the ability, as guests of foreign governments, and where CBP has formal agreements in place, to request and be present during sea cargo exams at foreign locations. However, this process is not an exemption from CBP processing/inspection once the cargo arrives in the U.S. In the trucking environment, due to the distance, time, and accessibility of the cargo from where it is loaded until it crosses the border, the safeguarding of the cargo is significantly more difficult to accomplish. Thus, this operational model would not significantly enhance the cross-border movement of low-risk cargo into the U.S."

The economic development council has met with U.S. officials from the Border Patrol, Caltrans, the San Diego Association of Governments, and other agencies to pitch these ideas. "They're always very polite," Escobedo says, "and they listen to all our petitions."

But Escobedo says the answer to those petitions seldom changes. "They say, 'It would be impossible, for homeland security reasons, to authorize that.' "

Fasano says that's not a pat answer. "To secure the border and protect our nation is not an excuse but rather the core mission of CBP. Tighter border security continues to result in the seizure of large quantities of narcotics, the apprehension of immigration fraud and smuggling, and the arrest of individuals with outstanding felony arrest warrants."

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