Innovative San Diego-Tijuana Airport Border Crossing

Robert Donnelly, Mexico Institute Program Associate, 8/2010

A border crossing connecting Tijuana’s international airport to a passenger terminal in San Diego County cleared a key bureaucratic hurdle last week, winning a presidential permit from the State Department. Presidential permits are necessary authorizations for the construction of new border infrastructure, such as ports of entry, rail linkages, etc. The crossing would allow travelers to park on the U.S. side, walk across an enclosed pedestrian bridge into Mexico, and board planes directly out of the General Abelardo L. Rodríguez airport, located some miles east of downtown Tijuana. Upon return, travelers would be greeted at a new U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint where they would be asked to produce WHTI-compliant travel documents, much as they would if arriving from overseas at a domestic airport. The crossing is expected to ease congestion at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa land crossings, as returning U.S. air passengers would now have a faster alternative to those oversaturated ports. It’s also expected to cut down on the commute time for the many southern California residents who use the Tijuana airport to reach Mexican provincial destinations, which are not served by San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. The US$78-million project is noteworthy for its advancement of novel partnerships between federal and state actors and between government and the private sector; and the real estate magnate and billionaire Sam Zell is a chief investor. Construction is slated for next year with opening scheduled by 2013.

News of the permit is a victory for those who have lobbied for a cross-border passenger terminal for the past decade. In a larger sense, it’s also a victory for creative binational collaboration on regional land-use and transportation planning, envisioning a transborder area like San Diego-Tijuana as a whole rather than two halves. The new crossing should improve regional transportation efficiencies, take better advantage of the underused Tijuana airport, and ease pressure to expand airport space in San Diego, where capacities are already well-established and, apparently, there is little room to grow. San Diego’s  commercial airport, the one-runway Lindbergh Field, is located downtown near the city’s harbor on real estate considered too small for consequent expansion, while curfews bar late flights. Additionally, efforts to enlarge capacity by building additional airports elsewhere in the county have faltered in recent years. In 2006, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to site a commercial airport on a part of the Marine Corps’ Miramar Air Station, located in the north of the county, citing noise concerns.

Authorization for the new border crossing comes less than two years after the approval of another similarly innovative infrastructure expansion at the San Diego-Tijuana border. That expansion—the construction of a second vehicle and pedestrian port of entry at Otay Mesa—was fast-tracked for approval because it created buy-in from multiple government and private-sector stakeholders, adroitly balancing risk and interest. Granted a presidential permit in November 2008 and scheduled to open in 2015, the project leveraged state approval for the building of a needed connector toll road (California SR11) to win federal support for the construction and staffing of a new CBP port of entry. Simultaneously, planners also obtained assurances from private-sector financiers and concessionaires in both countries to ensure the project’s viability.

The East Otay Mesa crossing is not the only “success story” of its kind, helping to expand much-needed border infrastructure capacity and economically benefit local border communities. In Arizona, at the Nogales West port of entry, known as Mariposa, the lobbying of a business council, the Greater Nogales Santa Cruz County Port Authority, led to federal approval in 2006 of expedited lanes for commercial vehicles (FAST lanes). Later, in 2009, the POE became the beneficiary of US$199.5 million in stimulus funding for facility improvements, indirectly contributing to an upgrade of the City of Nogales municipal bond rating.

Both examples demonstrate that creative, financially viable, and locally invested efforts can accelerate the approval and construction of new and expanded ports of entry. Along with the new airport crossing, these cases show the benefits of innovative public-public and public-private partnerships and their importance to the success of border infrastructure proposals.

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