STEVE WILLIAMS, ALAN BERSIN, JOSE LARROQUE & GUSTAVO DE LA FUENTE.
San Diego-Tijuana is a $230 billion economic engine with over 5 million residents and nearly 2 million employees. We are 40 percent of the entire U.S. and Mexico border population and the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, with approximately 120,000 passenger vehicles, 63,000 pedestrians and 6,000 trucks crossing back and forth every single day.
We are a constellation of powerful industries in a productive cross-border
partnership. In Tijuana, we showcase the world’s largest medical device
cluster and Mexico’s top aerospace, electronics and defense clusters, many of
which have administration and operations facilities on the U.S. side of the
border. There are nearly 600 export manufacturing plants and 50 contract
manufacturing options meeting world-class quality standards within a 15-mile
radius south of the San Ysidro port of entry; $42 billion worth of goods are
imported and exported at Otay Mesa each year.
San Diego’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical, biomedical, software and
communications clusters are significant contributors to a $52 billion
innovation economy that accounts for over 400,000 jobs — 30 percent of the
Tijuana adds close to $20 billion to San Diego’s production each year. The
value of trade between San Diego and Mexico consistently exceeds $4 billion
per year. Commercial exchange between Tijuana and San Diego is valued at
$2.1 million daily.
Our relationship transcends financial transactions. There are numerous
examples of collaboration and exchange involving medicine, medical tourism,
the arts, the environment, epidemiology and security.
Our communities understand the competitive advantage we have when we act
as one region, and critical to this advantage is a smooth flow of people,
vehicles and cargo across our shared border. Although we know our prosperity
is significantly tied to our border flows, border wait times have not improved.
They can be upward of three hours for general and Ready Lane travelers and
more than two hours for cargo. Lines from the U.S. to Mexico at peak
afternoon times can be one hour long.
Our border’s traffic congestion and delays cost the San Diego County and the
Baja California economies an estimated $6 billion annually in gross output,
according to the San Diego Association of Governments’ “Economic Impacts
of Wait Times at the San Diego-Baja California Border.” Over 51,000 jobs are
lost because of the reduction in output. Wait times cost our region close to 3
percent of our GDP or $1,200 per person per year!
From a purely commercial perspective, our borders are America’s cash
registers. All exports and imports must pass through them. No place else in
the U.S., however, could make their customers wait in line every day for two
hours and stay in business.
To many in this corner of Mexico’s Northwest and the U.S. Southwest who
understand the power of our binational trade and commerce, this lost
productivity is just unacceptable. Our hemisphere’s busiest border crossing is
“dumb” and slow when what is needed is a “smart” border. As a result, San
Diego and Tijuana business and academic leaders formed an organization to
focus on this problem. We call it our Smart Border Coalition.
The first principle in a Smart Border is that security and commerce are not
mutually exclusive. A Smart Border should be able to increase both of these,
not offset one at the expense of the other. Malin Burnham, our founder and
one of the area’s staunchest promoters of the binational region, believes
Homeland Security’s objectives are heavily oriented toward safeguarding the
nation, not trade or expedited crossings. There is a “structural flaw” in how the
border is managed. He argues that the Department of State and the
Department of Commerce should be a part of the policy conversation.
The second principle is innovation — the practical use of technology and reengineered procedures — to create, improve and complement our ports of
entry. Our region has been an innovation hub for more than 30 years with
world class companies such as Qualcomm, Cubic, SAIC, Illumina, Sempra
Energy, Medtronic, ScaleMatrix, and CareFusion leading the way. Our
innovation economy is almost one quarter of our county’s GDP and provided
close to 150,000 jobs in 2015, a historic high. UC San Diego has been the
common thread for a great deal of the breakthrough research and applications
that have made their way to millions of businesses and consumers. We must
imagine what the border would look like if we made better use of locally
generated technologies to create a “frictionless,” more efficient border
Our region has a track record of Smart Border solutions. These have been the
result of our binational stakeholders’ dynamism and persistence. SENTRI, the
trusted traveler fast pass for pedestrians and vehicles crossing the border, was
invented here in the 1990s by San Diego Dialogue, a diverse group of
binational professionals and UCSD academics. This program now represents
almost 37 percent of all northbound crossings at our two ports. In addition,
Customs and Border Protection and Aduanas have started programs for joint
screening of agricultural goods at the Otay Mesa port of entry to avoid cargo
having to stop at customs in both countries when crossing the border.
Otay Mesa East II Port of Entry, the “Model Port of the 21st Century,” will
soon combine modern and practical facilities on both sides of the border with
innovations such as reversible lanes and segmented tolling. The San Ysidro
port of entry is nearing the end of a $750 million reconstruction effort that will
boast 62 northbound vehicle primary inspection booths. For its part last year,
Mexican customs opened its most modern trade facility in the entire country
at the Otay Mesa port of entry in Tijuana.
CBX, the recently built cross-border pedestrian terminal and bridge that takes
air travelers from the United States to the Tijuana airport in literally 10
minutes over an 800-foot walkway, had nearly 2 million passengers last year.
Baja Rail, a Baja California company, recently rehabilitated the Mexican
portion of the old Spreckels railway and will soon do the same with the U.S.
segment, giving our export manufacturing industry a new alternative for
freight movement to the East Coast of the United States.
Though building more of a wall in our region would not change much — for
decades, we have lived with a “wall” that is up to two successive fences along a
good portion of the San Diego-Tijuana border — reductions in wait times
would spur commerce and trade, adding billions to our economies.
It is critical that we continue to leverage our thriving binational ties to go
beyond what we have accomplished so far. Better processes, smarter systems,
and more advanced technologies are required to make our border region more
efficient. We must lead the way for improved traveler processing times by
increasing the numbers of Customs and Border Protection and Mexican
Aduana and immigration officers and by re-engineering processes once
pedestrians and vehicles arrive at the booths. We must launch effective
marketing and education campaigns so that crossers bring proper
documentation and choose correct lanes upon arrival at the border. We must
provide reliable online mapping that can suggest the most efficient border
routes and appropriate lanes.
We must also collaborate to unclutter vehicle and truck access points to the
border, expand joint inspections, increase membership in trusted traveler
programs such as SENTRI and C-TPAT, formally launch pre-clearance
initiatives for shipments long before they reach the border, and share importer
and exporter load data through a “single window.”
There is no one better to work on creating a “frictionless” border than the
people who live here. Border landers’ knowledge and experiences of what
actually works for states, cities and communities on the border should drive
the national debate about what secure and smart borders ought to look like in
national policy terms.
In the 2014 Smart Border Coalition-sponsored paper “From Border Barriers to
Bi-National Promise,” The Creative Class Group and thought leaders Richard
Florida and Mary Walshok wrote, “Whether the topic is trade and
manufacturing, medicine, the arts, the environment, epidemiology or even
national security, a less paranoid, more collaborative, and more
technologically sophisticated system of border management would pay
enormous dividends, advancing new models of cross-border socio-economic
Notwithstanding our challenges, San Diego-Tijuana is a prime example of how
the competitiveness brought on by NAFTA 23 years ago can be put into action
and enhanced. Now that the spotlight is on U.S.-Mexico relations, the Smart
Border Coalition calls on the San Diego-Tijuana region to seize the moment to
define what the Smart Border must look like. Doing so will not only help us
become safer and more prosperous, but it will also set an example of
collaboration for dozens of other communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Williams and Larroque are co-chairs of the Smart Border Coalition board
of directors. Bersin served in several key posts in the Department of
Homeland Security during the Obama Administration, including acting
commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. De La Fuente is executive
director and a board member of the Smart Border Coalition.
Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune