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Improvements promised for pedestrians at San Ysidro border crossing

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#1 HK70


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Posted 07 November 2012 - 12:36 AM

Improvements promised for pedestrians at San Ysidro border crossing
Written by
Sandra Dibble
9:13 a.m., Nov. 4, 2012

TIJUANA — For tens of thousands of pedestrians going through the San Ysidro border crossing each day, the experience can be daunting.

Morning waits to enter the United States can last more than two hours — and twice that time during peak weekend periods. Travelers entering Mexico are greeted by a maze of stairs and ramps with hairpin turns. To reach public transportation, they typically have to squeeze past a snaking line of northbound pedestrians, then cross by bridge to the other side of Tijuana’s northbound vehicle lanes.

Last week’s formal opening of the 22-lane El Chaparral port of entry in Mexico included promises of faster and smoother crossings for the approximately 32,000 vehicles that head into Mexico each day through San Ysidro. But gains have yet to emerge for the roughly 50,000 daily pedestrians who travel north or south at the world’s busiest land border crossing.

“Past two hours, I kind of go crazy,” said Yvonne Esqueda, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen listening to music on her iPod while waiting to cross into San Diego County at 9 a.m. Thursday. “It’s tiring but I don’t have a choice,” said Esqueda, a Tijuana resident who studies in Chula Vista and works at Plaza Las Americas in San Ysidro.

The massive, binational reconfiguration of the San Ysidro port envisions improvements for pedestrians: more crossing lanes, new high-tech processing facilities in Mexico and the United States, and connections to public transportation hubs on both sides of the border. But so far, drivers are the ones who have seen the most dramatic changes.

“We’ve been so excited about having a speedier crossing vehicle-wise that we’ve forgotten about how important the pedestrians are,” said San Diego Councilman David Alvarez.

Roughly one-fifth of the 25,000 daily northbound crossers remain in San Ysidro to work, shop, visit family or engage in other activities, said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and director of the San Ysidro Smart Border Coalition. Many more board the San Diego trolley or take other public transportation to work, schools, stores, banks, medical appointments and family gatherings across the county.

“The pedestrians are a regional issue. It’s not just a San Ysidro issue,” Wells said. “Those hotels in downtown San Diego, their workers are coming through this crossing.”

The northbound line on Thursday morning was about 1,200 people long, translating to a roughly two-hour wait. The pedestrians included a 21-year old U.S. citizen living in Tijuana and heading to work at the McDonald’s in San Ysidro, a 73-year-old Tijuana woman picking up a check in San Diego, a 59-year-old Tijuana homemaker preparing to shop in Chula Vista, a 63-year-old San Ysidro resident returning from a visit with her boyfriend, a Caltrans worker coming back home after visiting his ailing uncle in Tijuana and Ali Wittenburg, a 23-year-old former resident of La Mesa who moved to Tijuana after losing her job with a property management company.

“I don’t know how I put up with it. I just do because I’m trying to survive,” Wittenburg said.

Expanding pedestrian facilities is part of the U.S. government’s $583 million renovation of the San Ysidro port, but Congress has yet to pay for those facilities. These improvements, part of the overall project’s third phase, include increasing processing capacity from the current 14 lanes to as many as 40 — including up to 30 at a new facility on the east side.

Also planned for the third phase is a second pedestrian entrance with about 10 lanes on the west side.

San Ysidro’s pedestrian commuters, who have endured growing wait times during the past two years, said the changes can’t come soon enough. Yet the waits have not dissuaded them from crossing: Overall northbound pedestrian traffic at U.S. ports of entry along the California border has increased significantly — from 14 million in fiscal year 2009 to 17.9 million in fiscal year 2012, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Pete Flores, the agency’s director of field operations in San Diego, attributed the longer waits to a variety of reasons: “More travelers, more requirements, querying people more on primary, security at the border.”

To bring some short-term relief for northbound pedestrians at San Ysidro, the agency is preparing to install a pedestrian “Ready Lane” for those who have designated documents with radio frequency identification technology, including U.S. passport cards, enhanced U.S. driver’s licenses, the new U.S. permanent resident “green card” and the new border-crossing card for Mexicans.

For southbound pedestrians, the Baja California government is building a permanent entrance scheduled to open in March; it would replace the one opened provisionally in September to accommodate a newly constructed U.S. pedestrian entry to Mexico, said Sergio Montes, undersecretary of the agency SIDUE, which oversees the state’s infrastructure planning. Built on the east side of the San Ysidro port, the permanent facility would eventually allow pedestrians to board taxis and connect to a future rapid-transit bus system, Montes said.

Meanwhile, business groups and planners with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) have been pushing for the immediate construction of a western pedestrian processing facility at Virginia Avenue in San Ysidro that would connect to El Chaparral. It would replace the long-used southbound pedestrian crossing that closed in September when Mexico built an access road to El Chaparral.

Luis Torres, the Mexican federal government’s customs director for Tijuana, said he is prepared to begin receiving pedestrians immediately at El Chaparral. But officials with the U.S. General Services Administration, or GSA, said a northbound processing center at that site can’t be completed until April 2015.

SANDAG director Gary Gallegos proposes opening a new temporary processing facility there — at least for southbound crossers. “If Mexicans are indeed ready to accept pedestrians southbound at El Chaparral, maybe (the provisional U.S. facility) could be done in weeks or a month or two,” he said.

Ultimately, the current pedestrian situation “is unacceptable,” said Anthony Kleppe, a senior assets manager for the GSA, who addressed the issue last month during a presentation to the SANDAG Borders Committee. “What people need to know is that we have a solution.”


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