By Ethan Epstein, POLITICO Magazine
A simple pedestrian crossing created the world’s first true binational airport, and boosted the economies on both sides of the border.
Around lunchtime two days before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, some 200 business and civic leaders from San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, gathered in a hotel ballroom in downtown San Diego for an event hosted by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. As the assembled professionals, decked out in business-casual attire and speaking a smattering of Spanish and English, munched on cold—not to say rubbery—chicken and green salad and sipped iced tea, the event’s keynote speaker, a UCLA economist named Lee Ohanian, delivered a pessimistic message about the man who was on everybody’s mind.
Trump’s plan to tax imports from Mexico would amount to “shooting [us] in the foot,” Ohanian declared, “with many, many unintended consequences.” Given the aging of the baby boomers and declining U.S. birth rates, Trump’s possible plan to reduce immigration levels would make it “extremely difficult” to achieve increased productivity or GDP growth, he warned. But Ohanian wound up his speech on a positive note: Trump seems like a “person who tends to change his mind,” he said. The crowd laughed nervously.
For the people who do business in Tijuana and San Diego talk, of barriers—whether it’s tariffs or even “big beautiful walls”— is anathema. They know that the health of their “mega region,” as San Diego’s Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer calls it, depends on enhancing the economic integration of the two cities that collectively boast a population of 5 million. (Roughly half live on each side.) One of the most dramatic examples of their commitment to that entwined economy is a bridge that literally crosses above the border fence. In late 2015, a terminal connecting San Diego to the Tijuana airport opened. Funded privately by American and Mexican investors, the Cross Border Xpress has created the world’s first truly binational airport. Each day, thousands of passengers from San Diego now walk easily across the border directly into the Tijuana airport. Conversely, people landing in Tijuana now walk into San Diego after their flights. The project is a striking physical manifestation of the increasing interconnectedness of the two cities.
It wasn’t always this way; in fact, as recently as 20 years ago, San Diego, a southern California city long dominated by a major presence of the U.S. Navy, felt more of a gravitational pull from the north than the south. “San Diego was [still] deciding what it wanted to be. We looked north and decided that we did not want to be Los Angeles, or worse a pretty suburb of Los Angeles,” recalls James Clark, the executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, a civic group that advocates for improved border crossings. San Diego looked south and discovered its sister city, Tijuana, had become a manufacturing powerhouse. “Tijuanese were spending money in our stores, restaurants, museums, and theaters. We had families that lived on both sides of the border, went to school on both sides of the border, attended church on both sides and were truly bi-cultural, bilingual, and binational.”
Signs of integration abound. You can hear it in the impeccable Mexican Spanish pronunciation that even many Anglo San Diegans possess; the city to their south is named “Tee-hwana,” not “Tee-a-wanna,” they remind visitors. You can see it in many of the city’s neighborhoods, where Spanish signage is everywhere. And most of all, you can see it at the border crossing in the southern San Diego neighborhood of San Ysidro, the world’s busiest land border. It’s a sprawling, hectic scene, as thousands line up on foot and in cars to make what for many is a daily crossing from Mexico to the United States and vice versa.
Today, the mayor of San Diego says, the relationship between Tijuana and his city is “incredibly strong.” The numbers tell the story. According to a 2014 study from the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, the region has a gross annual product of more than $220 billion. Some 70,000 commercial and vehicular northbound crossings are made each day. (Tens of thousands of those are commuters—some of them American citizens—who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego.) The area has become “the largest region for medical device manufacturing” in the world, says Faulconer, who explains that because of increasingly complex binational supply chains, “sometimes [one product] will cross the border two to three times.” UCLA’s Ohanian pegs the figure far higher: In some cases, he suggests, a good can cross the U.S.-Mexico border an astonishing 14 times before it goes to market. One study suggests that the average good exported from Mexico to the U.S. contains 40-percent American-made components. In the San Diego-Tijuana region, Solar Turbines, Kyocera International and Taylor Guitars are just a few of the companies that have facilities on both sides of the border.
To help bolster this burgeoning cross-border relationship, the region has undertaken some unusual binational infrastructure initiatives in recent years—and not just at the Tijuana airport. Most importantly, construction is now underway on a new land border crossing to the east of the extant traffic-clogged gateways; one designed and partially funded with local money from San Diego County’s regional governments, and which will be paid off through tolls. The new border crossing should be open before the decade is out, and—backers say—the benefits to the regional economy will total in the billions. Regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office, San Diego and Tijuana are betting that “big league” binational infrastructure investments will pay off.
Flying into San Diego is an undeniably thrilling experience. The busiest single-runway airport in the country, still known to many by its original name, Lindbergh Field dates to 1923. It’s hemmed in by a bay, steep hills and the skyscrapers of downtown. (That the airport was named for a notorious anti-Semite is actually among the least of its problems.) Already operating at near capacity, handling some 20 million passengers a year, the airport simply cannot expand—the topography won’t allow it. Noise restrictions, meanwhile, limit the hours at which planes can take off and land. Lindbergh’s short runway also limits the size of planes it can accommodate, and therefore the length of its routes. And to top it off, pilots say the obstacles around it make the airport one of the most challenging in the country to land at.
Local businesses and residents have complained for years that they’re being hemmed in by Lindbergh’s limitations. Many with international destinations have long been forced to travel up to Los Angeles International to catch flights—an often congested journey of 125 miles.
Starting back in the 1960s, San Diegans began thinking about replacing Lindbergh. But it wasn’t until around 1990 that local leaders began seriously casting about for solutions. Initially, they looked south. That year, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional transportation planning board made up of 18 cities and the San Diego County government, proposed building a binational airport that San Diego and Tijuana would share.
It was intriguing idea: It just so happens that the Tijuana’s airport sits on the northern Mexico border, directly across from a fairly undeveloped and largely flat section of eastern San Diego called Otay Mesa. (Otay Mesa also already has its own small airport used for private planes called Brown Field.) The idea was that the Tijuana airport would expand north, into San Diego. A 1990 booklet promoting the idea called for “separate terminals and customs [on either side of the border]” along with “shared runways, taxiway and control tower.” Mexican authorities shot down the idea, however.
A year later, a Republican San Diego city councilman named Ron Roberts—perhaps not coincidentally, an architect by trade—made a similar proposal, one he dubbed “Twin Ports.” As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, “Roberts’ proposal calls for a 12,000-foot runway and terminals to be built on the U.S. side of the border, adjacent to Tijuana’s international airport . . . The twin airports would operate separate arrival and departure terminals, customs checkpoints, immigration, agriculture and other inspection facilities. The only permanent physical feature crossing the border would be a taxiway linking the two parallel runways.” Similar proposals were debated in the ensuing years.
Ultimately, the binational issues involved made building a dual runway San Diego-Tijuana airport all but impossible. The legal issues involved in aviation are complicated enough domestically, but having to deal with two countries’ aviation laws and regulations in a single airport proved too high a barrier—particularly in the wake of 9/11. Then, in 2006, another possible solution to Lindbergh Field’s woes was scuttled when a referendum, promoted by SANDAG, which would have relocated the San Diego airport to nearby Miramar Marine Corps Air Station went down to heavy defeat. (That proposal was doomed as soon as the Marines came out against it—you don’t mess with the military in San Diego.)
What to do?
Around the same time, a new idea began being seriously discussed by Mexican and American authorities and business leaders. Rather than build a new runway on the northern side of the border, what if San Diego simply constructed a new terminal, which would provide access to the Tijuana side of the border? That would provide all of the benefits of a binational airport, but without the headaches of runways and taxiways crossing international borders. And better yet—what if the project could be completed using private funds? That made the idea particularly appealing in a traditionally tightwad, conservative area like San Diego.
Investors on both the American and Mexican sides of the border were interested. A group of them (including the Chicago-based magnate Sam Zell, who drove the Tribune newspaper chain into bankruptcy) formed a new company, Otay-Tijuana Ventures, LLC, and acquired the land on the north side of the border for about $30 million.
While the project was privately funded, the city government took the lead on promoting the new solution and getting the necessary approvals. San Diego “advocated strongly in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City for the project,” says Jen Lebron, press secretary and director of digital strategy for the city of San Diego. That paid off in 2010 when the U.S. State Department greenlighted it. The city government also offered what was crucial for getting the project off the ground: permitting. In 2012, it officially granted land-use permits and building permits for the facility. In 2014, construction commenced.
In December 2015, the Cross Border Xpress (CBX), a 65,000-square foot facility opened to its first passengers. It’s about 20 miles south of Lindbergh Field and downtown San Diego. A grand opening ceremony, featuring appearances by San Diego and Tijuana’s mayors, was held in April. Total costs were $120 million. (Alas, even the private sector can suffer from cost overruns—initially, costs were pegged at about $80 million.)
The handsome facility, designed by the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, evokes openness: Taking advantage of the San Diego-Tijuana climate, it even has an outdoor garden featuring desert plants. It’s built to serve a capacity of 2.5 million passengers a year; the Tijuana airport handled roughly 6.3 million flyers in 2016, meaning that CBX could end up serving about a third of the passengers who use the airport. The pièce de resistance of the facility is the purple 390-foot bridge that crosses the national border—indeed, it passes right above the black border fence. It’s the world’s only truly binational airport with commercial service—two Swiss airports are accessible from France, but their facilities sit wholly within Switzerland.
The elegant simplicity of the idea is apparent when one visits. The firm that built the CBX explains it this way: “Passengers departing from the U.S. park on CBX property, enter the building, check-in, walk over the border using the new bridge, and literally descend into [Tijuana airport] to reach their flights. Returning passengers land at [Tijuana], take the bridge across the border, enter the U.S. through the new [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol] facility, and emerge from the CBX to take their preferred form of transportation.” Passengers pay a fee—usually around $16—to use the facility. (That’s how the private investors make their money.) And one has to possess a valid boarding pass to use it.
Elizabeth Brown, the chief commercial officer at CBX, joined the project in the summer of 2015, just a few months before its opening. She’s essentially in charge of the terminal now. A Canadian citizen, Brown’s previous assignment had been eight years at the Montego Bay, Jamaica, airport. (Brown, a cheerful presence, is a good sport: When I tell her my luggage had been pilfered at Montego Bay few years back, she chuckles apologetically.)
Brown says that after a little more than a year, CBX has been a wild success. In fact, the only real snag so far has been a result of that success: There isn’t enough parking. Today about 5,000 people use the CBX daily, with roughly equal traffic heading north and south. On January 2, CBX had a record 10,000 passengers pass through the facility. Tijuana airport, for its part, has room to grow. Unlike Lindbergh, it operates 24 hours a day, and airlines are reportedly considering adding additional service.
Given that no public transit yet extends to the terminal—hey, this is southern California—the lack of parking is a real problem. The facility has already expanded its parking capacity once, because the city of San Diego government, ever supportive, allowed a temporary parking permit. More expansion is in the pipeline: The city of San Diego has also provided permitting for a new parking garage and hotel abutting the facility.
Brown says that, at least in part, the CBX is catering to demand that already existed. “Forty-five percent of people going to Mexico from southern California use the Tijuana airport,” she reports. “That’s more than [Los Angeles International] and [Lindbergh Field] combined. In the past, they’d just drive across the border.” That might have worked going south, but for return trips, it was a potential nightmare. Given the San Ysidro border crossing’s notorious congestion, simply crossing into San Diego after a flight could add hours to the journey. Locals used to complain that crossing into San Diego often took longer than the actual flight into Tijuana.
Today, when using the CBX, that border crossing is just about seamless. In fact, I enjoyed a demonstration of this. When I arrived at the terminal to meet Brown, she was about to land on a flight into Tijuana from Mexico City. She sent a text message when she arrived at baggage claim; less than 20 minutes later, Brown emerged onto the San Diego side, having already picked up her bag and cleared customs. (“I swear we didn’t plan this!” one of her colleagues said.)
There’s no evidence that Lindbergh Field, which maintained a studied neutrality about the CBX, has been hurt by the advent of the bridge. After all, the number of passengers arriving and departing out of San Diego continues to slowly rise. Again, a significant portion of people who use CBX would simply have driven over to Tijuana in the past. And indeed, as UC San Diego economics professor Richard T. Carson, an expert on airports, points out, “Large metropolitan areas are typically best served by multiple airports.” There’s little overlap, moreover, between the destinations; Tijuana serves more than two dozen Mexican destinations, for example, while San Diego’s airport has flights to only two. Tijuana also boasts a direct flight to Shanghai; San Diego has no routes to China. Brown also notes that some people fly into Tijuana, use the CBX, and then hop on a shuttle bus to make the trip up to San Diego’s airport for their onward journey. That trip would have been essentially un-doable when one had to rely on the arduous and unpredictable San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana into San Diego.
The economist Carson, who back in 2006 argued loudly that the Miramar airfield proposal was unnecessary, is bullish on the CBX, which he says “works smoothly,” noting how it’s opened up destinations in Mexico that were once accessible only by driving up to Los Angeles, then flying out of LAX. Ron Roberts, the former city councilman who more than a quarter century ago proposed the “Twin Ports” solution, is also a fan. He’s used the facility as a passenger and says that the CBX is “working super.”
Carson points to other knock-on benefits for the region, including increased tourism in San Diego from residents of Mexico and other Latin American countries, who now find it “considerably easier” to get there.
The key, says Brown, is that flights from other Mexican cities into Tijuana are domestic flights—they tend to be much cheaper than international routes from Mexico that terminate in cities like San Diego or Los Angeles. (By some estimates, flights out of Tijuana tend to be about a third cheaper than those out of San Diego.) The CBX therefore makes places like Orange County’s Disneyland a lot more accessible—and affordable—for price-sensitive Mexican travelers.
Traffic jams, to be sure, are a fact of life in southern California. But the mass congestion at San Diego’s border crossings has long been a serious hindrance for a region that relies on easy and predictable international crossings of goods and people.
It was back in 2006, Denise Ducheny recalls, when SANDAG released its landmark Border Wait Times Study. Ducheny, now a senior policy advisor at UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, was then a Democratic state senator representing a district of San Diego. The results of SANDAG’s study were sobering: Wait times at the border—at Otay Mesa, which is equipped to handle trucks, and San Ysidro, which isn’t—were costing the regional economy a cool $7.2 billion a year, and more than 60,000 jobs.
Ducheny knew something had to be done—that the region needed faster, easier, more efficient crossings. But at the same time, she was well aware that was easier said than done. The federal government, traditionally in charge of international border crossings, would never spend enough to drastically improve the situation, she recalls thinking—and this was even before the 2009 recession that hammered tax receipts and the federal government’s balance sheet. And though the feds did eventually appropriate $741 million to expand the crossing at San Ysidro, it was clear to Ducheny and others that a more drastic solution was necessary. In other words, San Diego-Tijuana needed a new border crossing, one that could handle both commercial and personal traffic. The new crossing would go in to the east of the two existing ports of entry, at a site dubbed Otay Mesa East.
The problem, as always, was money. But there was a possible solution: tolls.
Ducheny was initially resistant to the idea. “I had always hated the notion of paying to cross the border,” she says. It’s a California thing: “We’re used to freeways being freeways.”
Eventually, however, realizing that tolling was the best option, Ducheny came around. In 2008, she sponsored legislation in the California State Senate that granted SANDAG the authority to issue construction bonds, build a new road to the border and seek private funds for a public-private partnership. The bill passed easily.
The access road to the crossing will be tolled; that’s how the bonds will be repaid. Otay Mesa East will be the first paid crossing between California and Mexico. (Some of the Texas-Mexico crossings levy tolls.)
The project is locally driven—that’s key. “We’re actually planning [the crossing] as a whole system,” says Ducheny, including the access roads, the facility itself and even the new facilities on the Mexican side. Pointing to the extant Otay Mesa crossing, she says that the local emphasis will pay dividends in a way that federally led projects haven’t. Otay Mesa, which was driven by the feds, is a first-class facility, but it was “built in the middle of nowhere, with no connecting roads.” Otay Mesa East will be much better planned, she says.
The project has also provided an opportunity for enhanced cross-border cooperation. Given that Mexico also has to build new roads to the crossing on the southern side, the idea is that the toll revenues on the American side will be shared with the Mexicans. And because the toll is technically only for the access roads, not the crossing itself, the feds don’t need to get involved. “If we pull this off, this is a new model,” Ducheny says.
Already, more than half of the tolled access road on the San Diego side has been built. The project’s backers hope the crossing will be operational before the decade is out. They’re just awaiting final approval from the Mexican and U.S. governments for the planned facility at the border itself.
Ron Roberts—the former city councilman who long ago proposed building Twin Ports—is now the chair of SANDAG. He says that, if all goes according to plan, “crossing at Otay Mesa East will take one-tenth of the time that it does at San Ysidro.” In order to make sure the new crossing doesn’t simply become another traffic-clogged San Ysidro or Otay Mesa, the cost of the tolls will rise and fall based on demand. The variable tolling scheme “will keep traffic reasonable,” Roberts insists. A SANDAG study estimates that median toll rates will be $2.35 for private cars and $15.45 for commercial vehicles. The Smart Border Coalition is also pushing to make it easier for Customs and Border Patrol to hire and train agents; the group argues that the current standards lead to understaffed facilities, which only compound the volume-related delays.
If the traffic reduction plan works, it will be a boon to the region: “Imagine if a truck can make three round trips a day instead of two,” Ducheny says, “that’s a huge productivity increase.”
Like Orange County directly to its north, San Diego has traditionally been friendlier to the Republican Party than many other parts of coastal California. Pete Wilson, who went on to a fiercely conservative governorship of California, was mayor here. The GOP’s relative strength in San Diego continues to this day, with current mayor Kevin Faulconer just about the only prominent elected Republican left in the state. (For this reason, it’s widely expected that he’ll run for governor in 2018.)
But a funny thing happened in 2016: Donald Trump got slaughtered in San Diego County, losing 56 to 31 percent. Compare that to 2012, when Mitt Romney managed to secure 46.4 percent to Obama’s 51.5 percent.
Trump’s perceived hostility to Mexico was a big reason why. It wasn’t his call for a wall along the border that turned people off—indeed, San Diegans have no problem with the border fence that separates them from Tijuana and recognize the need for border security. Rather, it was Trump’s call for a tax on imports from Mexico and his general perceived disdain for the country to the south that alarmed people.
Already, Trump’s presidency is affecting the area in unpredictable ways. Las Americas Premium Outlets is a major outlet mall in San Ysidro, just a little way from the border crossing. So close to Mexico is the outdoor mall that its back parking lot abuts the border fence. While the real estate company that owns Las Americas wouldn’t disclose sales figures, a spokesman acknowledged that “a great many” of its shoppers are from Mexico.
Yet on a recent weekday the mall was seemingly deserted. The fall in the value of Mexican peso—a direct result of Trump’s election, economists agree—has sharply curtailed Mexican shopping in San Diego, says James Clark of the Smart Border Coalition. This was illustrated to even greater affect on Sunday, February 5, when Mexican shoppers organized a spontaneous, social media-fueled boycott of American stores. On that day, San Ysidro merchants reported their sales figures were 50 to 80 percent off from a typical Sunday. Border crossings into San Ysidro were reported to take only 20 minutes; they’d take up to three hours on a normal weekend.
Local leaders hope they might be able to educate the new president. Mayor Faulconer—who, despite his partisan affiliation, pointedly declined to endorse Trump in the general election—suggests that the Trump presidency is an “opportunity” because the San Diego-Tijuana relationship is a “good story to tell.” At the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Jerry Sanders, the current Chamber president and himself a former Republican mayor of San Diego, said, while addressing the binational business community, “it’s so important that we continue working together, with a strong unified voice, to reach those outside of this room and beyond our region.” Everybody knew to whom he was referring.
And in the meantime, other projects are charging full speed ahead. Early last year, American authorities began inspecting trucks on the Mexican side of the border at Otay Mesa. The goal of this unprecedented project is to avoid double inspections—and to expedite the process of getting goods into the U.S.
Also, renovation is underway on a 100-year-old rail line linking San Diego with Tijuana and neighboring Tecate (a city some 30 miles east) then re-crossing the border, connecting with the Union Pacific line. Jorge Izquierdo, a spokesman for BC Rail in Tijuana, is sanguine. He figures that even with a border tax, the price will just be passed on to consumers, so goods will continue to flow. And Ducheny makes an interesting point as well: Washington’s souring relations with Mexico City have actually strengthened California-Mexico ties. “The Cali-Mex relationship is now stronger than ever,” she says, “especially as the U.S.-Mexico relationship weakens.”
Ultimately, no matter what happens in Washington—or in Mexico City, for that matter, where an anti-American leftist is tipped to be elected president in 2018—San Diego has no choice but to work with Tijuana.
“We breathe the same air, we use the same watershed,” points out Mayor Faulconer. In many ways, he says, “the story of San Diego is the story of its relationship to Mexico.”