SAN DIEGO – A rerouting of tens of thousands of vehicles a day begins Thursday at the busiest crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a major expansion that aims to keep lines manageable while allowing for heightened inspections for contraband.
The reconfigured San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, promises to give inspectors from both countries more time and space to search for illegal goods without disrupting motorists who go back and forth across the border to work, visit family and friends and shop.
A week of trial runs eased fears that a sharp turn will create big delays for Mexico-bound motorists.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who drove through an inspection booth Wednesday night, said travelers can expect a smooth trip.
Mexican authorities say they allowed up to 21,600 vehicles a day to take the new route during trials that began Oct. 24, with waits of only 10 minutes during peak travel times. Up to 100 vehicles moved through 22 inspection lanes every minute, far more than the eight inspection lanes at the old crossing.
"It looks like we avoided the border's Carmageddon," said Kenn Morris, president of Crossborder Group Inc., a consulting firm that has been studying border wait times. He was referring to Los Angeles freeway closures that raised concerns of epic traffic jams.
Calderón, who finishes his six-year term Dec. 1, assured an audience that the expansion, which cost his government equivalent of $76.4 million, will alleviate delays.
The new Mexico-bound lanes come as the U.S. government is in the middle of its own $583 million expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing, which includes plans for a soft curve on Interstate 5 in California leading into Tijuana.
Instead of waiting for the U.S. government to finish realigning its freeway, Mexico decided to introduce a sharp right turn for motorists entering Tijuana. Motorists drive along the border for about 300 yards to reach inspection booths.
"This time we finished a lot earlier than they did," Calderón said.
About 35,000 motorists go back and forth across the border at San Ysidro every day. U.S.-bound motorists grew accustomed to waiting two hours or more after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to more thorough inspections. Mexico-bound motorists wait much less, though both governments have stepped up efforts in recent years to search for smuggled weapons and cash.
The big test for the new lanes will come Friday afternoons, when motorists wait up to 45 minutes to enter Mexico, said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
Wells believes the Mexican government won't accept long delays. Some speculate that it will reopen the old route if the plan flops.
"Even if this doesn't work on day one, there's enough pressure on both sides of the border that they'll make it work," he said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.