February 23, 2021
“Let’s finish the Otay Mesa East Port of Entry by 2023”, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar dared the 40-person audience at the site of the new port last week. Though the stated deadline is fall of 2024, everyone seemed to agree that getting the port done even sooner is an admirable objective. But is it feasible? What was the Ambassador’s intention? All key actors in the port’s completion –on both sides—took the dare very seriously, and I suspect we will be hearing from them soon. Salazar seems to be in a hurry, what with all the backlog of infrastructure projects we have along the U.S.-Mexico border.
There are lingering questions. The new port is not just about a construction. Staffing it is just as important. It is the greatest unknown at this time on the U.S. side. Will our Congressional delegation deliver on appropriations for this or will the port’s tolls foot the bill? On the Mexican side, we still need to make sure the right of way is actually acquired so that work can begin soon thereafter.
Being an optimist and understanding the stakes, I believe all kinks will be ironed out in time for a 2024 launch.
Jorge Gutiérrez is the new mobility “czar” for Baja California. He heads IMOS, the Sustainable Mobility Institute. If anyone knows about the subject it is Jorge, a.k.a. “Bibi” Gutiérrez. He addressed the Tijuana Development Council’s board in late January and spoke about a whole slew of projects the new state administration is taking a close look at, including a trolley to take Tijuana workers to the San Ysidro Port of Entry as well as a new toll road straddling the international line that will connect the Tijuana Airport to Playas de Tijuana, with an exit at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The executive plan for this project is almost complete. There are funds from the Mexican Customs Fund that have been earmarked to the tune of $500 million dollars.
IMOS will also manage the regulation of vehicles imported illegally into Tijuana.
The City of Tijuana, the California Air Resources Board and CalEPA have signed an agreement to provide the City with 50 air pollution sensors. This is an important
breakthrough where I was involved. I am glad to see that both sides agreed on an MOU to deliver the units. Though they are not grade AAA sensors which are upwards of $150,000 each, the information they will capture will help Tijuana ascertain where the most congested areas are and will enable the City to educate its citizens about measures to mitigate pollution levels.
“Pre-vetting” and “pre-clearance” will become familiar words in the CBP jargon in the next decade. The agency is already using facial recognition or “simplified arrival” at all pedestrian ports. It is close to launching a pre-vetting feature on the CBP1 App for pedestrians at San Ysidro, where they reserve a crossing time. Many will balk at using it at first, but if people see the value, they will use it.
Already, the CBP1 App is being used for I-94s (Tourist visas). This is one of the first steps in moving travelers to using their smart phones to communicate with the agency.
The next iteration of the Border Innovation Challenge is underway. Smart Border Coalition and Rady School of Management will be coordinators and will enlist a national organization to boost the scope of the competition. We plan on doing the public event in early December.
The Challenge seeks ideas and business plans from students and entrepreneurs on both sides of the border to solve logistics issues in and around the ports of entry. We want to increase the scope of competitors this year by adding creative projects in the medical, tourism, manufacturing, and software development categories.
Let’s remember that a “smart” border is really about a narrative that highlights how to use a highly connected network of people to improve the cross-border relationship. This relationship is expressed in different areas, from logistics, to manufacturing, to transportation, to public health and tourism.
The CaliBaja Crossing Experience Group held important meetings to solidify its intent to improve the customer experience when crossing the border. Kudos to Mario López of Sempra/IEnova, Paco Fimbres of Calimax, Kenia Zamarripa of the San Diego Regional Chamber, David Pérez Tejada of the Baja California Government, Paty Hernández of the Tijuana EDC, Laura Araujo of Tijuana Innovadora and the World Design Capital, Sarah Moga Alemany of the City of San Diego and many others who are part of this outstanding group and keep things moving.
We celebrated an historic occasion last Monday the 14th, Valentine’s Day, at the site of the Otay Mesa East Port of Entry. The meeting of binational leaders underscored the latest port milestones on both sides of the border, bringing the project closer to reality in 2024. The significance of a meeting attended by the Lieutenant Governor of California, the Governor of California and the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico cannot be overstated.
- On the California side, all connecting roads to the port have been built. Caltrans and SANDAG have been right on schedule and are now eyeing a bond issue to pay for the port itself. The guarantee will be a percentage of toll revenue. The toll will be distributed between the U.S. and Mexico, marking the very first time something like this has ever happened in a land port between our countries.
- Rogelio Rivero, Director of Highway Development for the Infrastructure, Communications and Transportation Ministry of Mexico, stated that there is already an agreement to purchase 90% of the right of way and that the balance is under negotiation. He added that they have in place the executive plan for the construction of the access road to the port. This is a road that will be bid out to a private company. Sempra’s gas lines as well as the Mexican Electricity Commission’s (CFE) towers will be relocated. There is already an agreement with CFE to move the towers and the agreement with Sempra is close to being signed.
- Dr. Calixto Mateos, Nadbank Director, told the audience that the bank will be the custodian for toll revenues and for their distribution to each country. This role recognizes the importance of the bank’s commitment to the region and will surely spark additional involvement in Tijuana and Baja California Projects.
- The State Government of Baja California has been a catalyst for the follow up and commitments for the new port of entry. Governor Avila of Baja California sees the port as a must for her public administration. She has met with the Mexican army corps of engineers to follow up on build outs and has established a working group with the Mexican Foreign Relations and the Communications and Transportation Ministries.
- Ambassador Ken Salazar posed a challenge to both sides of the border. He asked that the port be finished in 2023, not 2024.
As if to stress the importance of the Otay Mesa East Port of Entry project, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador toured the site of the port in Tijuana along with Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar on February 17th. Governor Marina del Pilar Ávila was their host. Her government has been a strong supporter of the projects and has been in frequent communication with the Mexican Army Corps of
Engineers, the Infrastructure, Communications and Transportation and Foreign Relations Ministries.
Mexican Chef Pati Jinich is preparing a food/border narrative extravaganza this fall, when a dynamic cohort of Tijuana and San Diego friends hopes to bring her here to record her highly successful “La Frontera” program which aired nationally on KPBS last year and had over 1.3 million views in its first showing. That show was about border culture and food from El Paso/Juárez to Laredo/Nuevo Laredo.
This time, the show will feature the Western border, focusing on CaliBaja (please see ). The show will use “breaking bread” to discuss, describe and debate the great stories we have and the future we want. If anyone is interested in being a sponsor or contributing to this noble production, please let me know.
Pati has won the prestigious James Beard Award, recognizing culinary professionals in the Unites States, 3 times and is a New York Times best selling author, among many other accomplishments.
South County EDC’s board meetings always deliver important content and the meeting on February 1st was no exception. Héctor Vanegas and Phil Thom of SANDAG explained the extent of the $163 billion “5 Big Moves” that the agency has been promoting for the last 3 years. They described the “complete corridors project” that integrates pedestrians, bikes, cars, buses and trolleys and the next generation of bus rapid transit to connect all points. The largest part of the transportation transformation project are by far the mobility hubs and flexible fleets.
One aspect that keeps coming up about these new services is how they will impact our large transborder community. The story is that we have a whole city that makes its way to San Diego County every morning. Think of 140,000 people coming across every day –this would be the third largest city in the County after San Diego and Chula Vista. Some view this as the “19th city”. It is not entirely clear how we –San Diego and Tijuana—will manage this, but there are some important conversations happening.
There is a purple line connecting CBX with a central mobility hub. This will probably happen in the next 7-10 years and assuming voters will vote a majority “Yes” on the “5 Big Moves” initiative. There are talks that Tijuana will make a trolley available to take an important percentage of its workforce to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. There are even some conversations about building a cable car line to connect Tijuana with the border. A more feasible project is a toll road connecting Tijuana’s airport with San Yisdro and Playas. It will be entirely paid for with federal government money ($500 million dollars). It is important
that whatever Tijuana does, there needs to be an honest and productive conversation with SANDAG.
The Border Trade Alliance (BTA) has been thinking about how to enhance the “21st Century Customs Framework” developed by Customs and Border Protection with inputs from multiple stakeholders across the Unites States. It has been striking to see how that framework is still too U.S.-centric, when it should be North America-centric. A clear example of this is the fact that no one until the BTA decided to consider it had spoken about sharing eManifests (the electronic lists that describe cargo transported by an exporter, presented to Customs and Border Protection) between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
This would avoid the current three separate systems with different rules. This is easier said than done, but it speaks to all the work we need to do in trade and in so many other areas to harmonize procedures.
Redirecting Sea of Cortez water to Laguna Salada in Mexicali and then to the Salton Sea to avoid erosion and pollution sounds like a tall order, but there is one organization that is trying to do just that. Agess, Inc. is a California company that is thinking binationally in terms of putting water back into the empty Laguna Salada and supporting the Salton Sea as a consequence. The project is still in its beginning phase and is looking for buy-in from Mexico. Fortunately, the State of California has identified $300 million in funding –already in the bank—for the Salton Sea. As a benefit corporation, Agess would design and coordinate the project. A yet-to-be-determined non-profit would own the assets, and each state would own the projects.
The California Legislature is thinking binationally about water. Assemblymember José Medina has led the effort to plug in another $20 million in funding for the State of California to use in watersheds on the Mexican side of the border. Edgar Ruiz of The Council of State Governments West () has been instrumental in making sure that Baja California is part of the team that will set guidance and rules for the use of these funds.
Francisco Bernal, Secretary of Water for Baja California, has been studying ways in which Río Nuevo and Río Tijuana areas can benefit. The California money must have some matching funds in Mexico so that both sides have “skin in the game”.
With the disbanding of the migrant encampment at El Chaparral, the stage is now set to reopen PedWest, or so it seems. In our CBP Passenger Working Group meeting this month, we learned there is no guarantee the pedestrian port will open anytime soon. The issue, as you may have surmised, is staffing. There are finite resources to open it based on the priority needs at PedEast and staffing the many lanes at San Ysidro.
CBP is a complex organization where there is a long onboarding process for officers, where the officer academy closed during the pandemic (it has recently reopened), where there is moderate-to-high turnover and where frequent overtime use impacts demeanor and morale.
The staffing need in the coming 3 years is large: San Ysidro added 8 lanes with its recent expansion but still lacks personnel for them; CBX just doubled its lanes two weeks ago; Otay Mesa will go from 6 to 12 pedestrian lanes this year and cargo will have 6 more lanes this year; Calexico will go from 10 to 16 lanes for its pedestrians; and Otay Mesa East will require several hundred officers by summer of 2024.
In light of this, it is clear that organizations like the Smart Border Coalition must strongly advocate with our elected officials and the White House to make the case for staffing and for political will to reduce wait times.
In our conversations about Customs and Border Protection port management, there is a topic we discuss but rarely bring up with the agency: Traveler complaints. I realize there is some trepidation from some or many of you to express your dissatisfaction about your experience at booths. We typically remember our negative experiences but quickly forget about the positive ones.
I’ve learned, however, that things are not always what they seem. This week I was part of a very productive, substantive and frank discussion with CBP about the challenges faced at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
I brought up the issue of the traveler/customer experience as a whole and focused on traveler complaints. What was striking was that the agency is making a number of efforts to better manage the traveler experience. Most of you may not know this, but there is in fact a San Ysidro Professionalism Service Management (PSM) Unit. There are two individuals there who process both compliments and complaints. The primary point of contact for this is Supervisory CBP Officer Silvia Vargas (619-662-2290). I hope you share this information with your networks, and let’s use this channel wisely and responsibly.
I’ve known Shawn van Diver of Consulting Company Deloitte for the last 7 years or so. Other than his important role in linking his great company to many global projects and border
work. Shawn is involved in multiple civic activities. One of these is Afghan Evac ) , a “coalition of private, non-profit, government, and all-volunteer organizations focused on deconflicting communications, effort, and systemic issues across the full enterprise of efforts focused on helping Afghans evacuate and resettle safely, swiftly, and within the bounds of the law.”
Until he let me and a larger group of colleagues know about it, I didn’t know there was a citizen effort that was born out of “similar and heartbreaking circumstances: an unexpected text from their former Afghan interpreter or driver who remained behind; a call for help from the allies who became family following their resettlement in the US; a desperate plea from the patriot who volunteered to work side-by-side with US troops in support of our mission.”
This goes to show that many of the people who care for the binational relationship also do great work in other areas and put San Diego and Tijuana on the map while doing so. It is also an example of how an urgent issue gets an organized and timely resolution. This is food for thought as to how we must approach the issues we have at the border.
The Sonoran Institute’s Senior Director of Programs, Francisco Zamora, () spoke with me about their efforts to clean the Rio Nuevo delta in Mexicali. The Institute’s mission is to “drop by drop, restore flowing rivers and healthy landscapes to enable all people and nature to thrive.”
The Mexicali lagoon system has been polluted primarily by salts and nitrogen coming from the valley’s fields and by illegal raw sewage releases from industry. Both Calexico and Mexicali residents have borne the brunt of this untenable situation.
Zamora and colleagues have created a master plan for the lagoon system that focuses on solutions based on wetland habitat restoration. Their budget is $8.5 million over 3 years and have applied for CalEPA funding.
Tom Davis, creator of a program in National City called “16 Weeks of STEAM” () visited my office last week to ask for support but mainly to see how we can replicate this great program in Baja California. Tom created the successful program and has paid for it essentially out of his own pocket for the last 3 years.
Born in National City, he is an accomplished professional and at 6’5”, he is a basketballer who still plays in international events in his age group. He never forgets his Mexican heritage (his mother was Mexican) and wants to continue giving back to Hispanic and Mexican youngsters through his program. He is aware that “STEAM careers can positively impact the socio economic vitality of the region.”
I can see how 16 Weeks of STEAM could be turned into a binational program connecting elementary school kids in Tijuana with school children in San Diego. We have good examples of cross-border university connections, but we do not have much in terms of connections at a younger stage.
Our next online Stakeholders Working Committee meeting will convene on March 3rd from 9:00a.m. to 11:00a.m. The event is virtual –hopefully for the last time.
Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
Gustavo De La Fuente
/ (619) 814-1386