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Border Crossing Bridge for Tijuana Airport to Open in December...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

By Sandra Dibble | SDUT -

The great majority of cross-border travelers who use Tijuana’s A.L. Rodríguez International Airport are Mexicans — and U.S. Latinos with ties to Mexico. 

Now, developers of a new privately operated cross-border bridge connecting directly to the Mexican terminal hope the project will broaden U.S. interest in flying out of Tijuana to destinations across Mexico.

The vision is that Americans with concerns about driving into Tijuana, or wary of long northbound border waits on their return to the United States, will book flights at Rodríguez airport.

“There’s a huge opportunity for those U.S. nationals to travel within Mexico,” 
said Enrique Valle, chief executive of Otay Tijuana Ventures, builder and operator of the future Cross Border Xpress. 

“This is something that the Tijuana airport is not exploiting a lot.”

Of some 4.7 million passengers using the Tijuana airport last year, about 60 percent were traveling to or from southern California. 

The idea is that by paying the toll to use the bridge, travelers could save time and avoid congestion at the nearby Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports of entry.

The project’s developers estimate that about half of those who cross would use the bridge, between 1.5 million and 1.8 million passengers during its first year of operation. 

While looking to the established market to make up the bulk of users, they are counting on the bridge to bring new travelers to the airport, which offers direct flights to more than 30 Mexican destinations.

The plan has been criticized by some in Tijuana as bringing little benefits to the city, but Valle said the measure could help boost tourism. 

The rules will allow travelers to cross the border 24 hours prior to their flight, giving them a chance to stop for lunch in Tijuana before takeoff, or schedule meetings and medical appointments, Valle said.

Among those endorsing the project last week were Malin Burnham, the San Diego real estate developer who is co-chair of the Smart Border Coalition, a San Diego-Tijuana group whose members lobby for more efficient border crossings.

“This will get a lot more people willing to fly out of Tijuana than would ever think of it before,” Burnham said at the conclusion of a tour of the construction site for coalition members on Thursday.

The investors behind Otay Tijuana Venture include Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell and three Mexican partners connected to Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, which operates the Tijuana airport.

The $120 million Cross-Border Xpress project is a privately operated, for-profit facility that is unlike any other port of entry on the U.S. border. 

Only ticketed airline travelers will be able to use the 390-foot pedestrian bridge that spans the U.S. fence across from the Tijuana airport. 

Valle said its opening is scheduled for December, with tolls in the range of $13 to $17 each way.

The project includes a facility on the U.S. side where passengers would enter and exit the bridge, and allow them to get dropped off or picked up through public or private transportation.

Designed by the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, famous for his use of colors, the facility will house U.S. customs and immigration inspection facilities, as well as a sit-down restaurant, a sports bar, a VIP lounge, a coffee shop and a duty-free shop. 

There will be close to 900 parking spaces available to the public, as well as spaces for local and intercity buses, as well as taxis and Uber vehicles, Valle said.

For travelers such as Doris Aguilar, a 30-year-old public registry official from Mazatlan beginning a week-long stay in San Diego, it won’t be a moment too soon. 

On Thursday afternoon, she and her sister, pulling large suitcases as they walked into San Diego, said they’d waited for close to two hours in the pedestrian line at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry — more time than it took them to fly from Mazatlan to Tijuana.

“I would pay to avoid waiting in line, definitely,” Aguilar said, as she waited for the four remaining members of her family to make it across.

“It’s so hot, so uncomfortable, to be waiting in the sun, wondering if we’re moving forward or not.”

The project, years in the planning, evolved from an idea first floated in the early 1990s to create a binational airport at Otay Mesa to replace Lindbergh Field. 

The “Twinports” project entailed the construction of a runway north of the border parallel to the existing one at the Tijuana airport.

The plan was championed by Ron Roberts, then a member of the San Diego City Council and now a San Diego County supervisor, and won high-level support in the United States and Mexico, but also powerful detractors.

“The process was so long and there wasn’t enough buy-in at the top levels,” said Steve Castaneda, a former Chula Vista City Council member and transportation consultant who wrote a study about the Twinports proposal. 

“It just lost steam and didn’t go anywhere.”

The Twinports discussions gave birth to a different idea: Ralph Nieders, a San Diego businessman with connections in Mexico, was the first to propose a cross-border terminal, Castaneda said. 

The South County Economic Development Council commissioned a study of the proposal, which “proved that it was feasible,” Castaneda said.

With the new cross-border connection, “people will have a lot more access to Mexico and Latin America than they’ve ever had before,” Castaneda said.

“I think it’s long overdue.”

The project has been generating much interest in the surrounding South County area, said Cindy Gompper-Graves, CEO of the South County EDC. 

The building “will be one of those identifiers of the region,” she said. 

“I think it’s going to be an iconic structure.”

She said the project has been raising hopes among Otay Mesa property owners of bringing hotels, restaurants and other businesses to the area.

Leading Thursday’s tour for the Smart Border Coalition members was Harry Nuño, the project’s development director. 

The hope, he said, is that the facility will not only serve travelers, but workers and residents from the surrounding Otay Mesa area who want to stop by for a meal or a drink.

“We want this place to come alive, not only for us, but for the whole community,” he said.

Staff researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report. • (619) 293-1716 • 

Twitter: @sandradibble

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