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Political Analysis: The Otay Mesa Terminal

Audio

Aired 8/11/10

A proposed pedestrian terminal linking Otay Mesa with Tijuana's Rodriquez airport has passed a major hurdle. We'll hear about the project and how it's gotten so much support on both sides of the border.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Concerns about illegal activity at the U.S.-Mexico border have dominated headlines and politics lately. News about the drug cartel war or illegal border crossing is just about all you hear when it comes to relations with Mexico. In fact, right now National Guard troops are in training to beef up Border Patrol operations along the California border. So in this climate, it's remarkable to hear about a major cross border project that's just gotten a U.S. Presidential seal of approval. KPBS Political correspondent Gloria Penner is here to tell us about how a project to build a foot bridge between Otay Mesa and Tijuana managed to move forward. And good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen. It’s a happy story, at least for the investors and, hopefully, for the passengers.

CAVANAUGH: Who – Well, you know, you have to tell us about it.

PENNER: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: What is this foot bridge for?

PENNER: It is a pedestrian bridge that would connect a terminal in San Diego’s Otay Mesa to Tijuana’s Rodriguez International Airport and the arrangement would save travelers the time of driving across the congested San Ysidro and Otay Mesa Ports of Entry but only ticketed airline passengers who pay a toll would be able to use the crossing. There are some other privately operated crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border that charge user tolls but this one is different because it would be the first one to connect directly to an airport. And the facility would be the first international bridge that links the U.S. and Mexico that would be developed and operated by a single private sector, binational ownership team. We’ll talk more about that later. Because it’s binational, it differs from other border crossings where the border demarcates the bridge segments that are owned and operated by separate U.S. and Mexican entities. So, in other words, some entities will own a facility that goes up to the Mexican border and after that, it’s owned by a Mexican company.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

PENNER: But this would be owned by a unified Mexican and American interest company.

CAVANAUGH: And so is the idea behind this that this is a way to ease San Diego’s ongoing airport issues by making it easier for San Diegans to use Rodriguez Field?

PENNER: Oh, yes. Absolutely. What it would do is instead of somebody driving you to Rodriguez Field or you having to find your own way to Rodriguez Field by going across the border, which—and we know what that’s like—you would be dropped off on this side of the border, on Otay Mesa, and then you would just go through the pedestrian bridge and end up at Rodriguez Field. So it would be much easier. And coming back, the same thing. You don’t have to have somebody picking you up in Tijuana or you wouldn’t have to find a way of getting back from Tijuana, you’d just walk across and you’re back on U.S. soil.

CAVANAUGH: So who is building it? Who is this binational group of investors building this privately owned terminal, cross-border terminal?

PENNER: Okay, it’s called Otay Tijuana Ventures, L.L.C. (sic), and it was formed about three years ago as this private partnership of American and Mexican investors. The U.S. investment is owned by estate planning trusts associated with—and you’ll know this name—billionaire Sam Zell and members of his family. It’s called the Equity Group Investments. I spoke yesterday with Greg Rose in Chicago, who represents the ownership of Equity Group Investments and he said that the Mexican-based partners are PAP Corp. and Palario (sp) Corp. And according to documents that I saw filed with the Department of Interior, this is what we know about them. They’re owned by Carlos Laviada, Laura Diez Barroso Azcarraga de Laviada, Eduardo Sanchez Navarro and Juan Gallardo. I don’t know. Do you know any of them?

CAVANAUGH: No.

PENNER: You don’t know and neither do I. But this is the interesting part. Each of them except Juan Gallardo is a director of shareholder in, stay with me now, Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacífico, otherwise known as GAP, much easier that way. GAP is the public holding company that operates Rodriguez and 11 other airports in Mexico. What happened was that in 1998, Mexico decided to transfer the operation of its airports from government to private control and GAP is that private control. So we know now that on the Mexican side, the investors are associated with GAP and the GAP board of directors had to give their approval for this whole operation to take place.

CAVANAUGH: Now speaking of approval, we just mentioned that the U.S. – the president has given his approval through the State Department to let this project go and continue on. Who supports this plan? How did it get that far? Does it have the backing of local politicians?

PENNER: Oh, and how. Equity Investments’ Greg Rose talked about how they worked closely with Mayor Sanders to get letters of support for filing the application for the Presidential permit, with council president Ben Hueso, who represents the district that Otay Mesa is in. They met with Alan Bersin about outfitting the facility to meet the needs of the Customs and Border Protection Agency from a design perspective. Supervisor Greg Cox is also on board. And I spoke to James Clark, who is the Director General of the Chamber of Commerce’s Mexico office, and he said that Congress members Bob Filner and Susan Davis are supportive as well. So they had a whole bunch of people who were ready to go and they were politically affiliated.

CAVANAUGH: Pushing for this plan.

PENNER: Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now how much does the Presidential permit from the State Department, how much does that move the project forward? Are there still other hurdles? Does it have to get approval from Mexico?

PENNER: Exactly. It does. Because of the Presidential permit, it means that a lot of other agencies and departments have signed on already, departments such as Transportation, Homeland Security, the EPA. But Mexico still has to give its permits and so do the two cities in which the two facilities, two ends of the facilities, will be. So the City of San Diego will have to go through some permitting process and the City of Tijuana. So there’s still lots to do.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner and we’re talking about Presidential permit just issued for this construction of a cross border foot bridge between Otay Mesa and Tijuana’s Rodriguez Field. What about, as I said in the introduction, you know, we hear so much about border security and their National Guard training to beef up Border Patrol operations, what about border security in relation to this cross-border terminal?

PENNER: Well, the feeling is that actually it will benefit border security simply because if you’re a bad guy, as the head of the Mexico office, James Clark, said, you’re not going to go through a sealed foot bridge in which you are examined on both sides by Customs on the American side and Customs on the Mexican side because the Mexicans, after you go through, assuming you start off on this side of the border, you’ll go through Customs here and then your luggage will be x-rayed on the Mexican side, too, so they can check for things like bulk cash or weapons. And he said, you know, if you’re a bad guy, you’re going to go through the border crossings because it’s going to be easier to get whatever it is you want through the border crossings than across the pedestrian bridge.

CAVANAUGH: Now you used a word ‘sealed’ foot bridge. What is this going to look like? I imagine it’s going to have a roof, it’s going to be like a passageway.

PENNER: It will. First of all, it looks like an airport terminal building on our side of the border with this raised, totally enclosed walkway that leads from the building to a building at Rodriguez Field just across the border. The bridge is a protected, secure environment. It has a main building for U.S. Customs and Border Protection along with the usual shops and services, you know, a little bit of retail helps kick up the bottom line a little bit. That would, of course, accommodate travelers and help the owners as well in terms of their investment. The pedestrian bridge is about 525 feet, if you can figure out what that is. It’s not quite the length of a football field, I think. And it connects to the Rodriguez passenger terminal. There are parking facilities and areas for car rentals and potentially a bus service. The site has space for a potential cargo facility that might be built at a later date but no cargo facility now.

CAVANAUGH: Now are there any vocal opponents of this plan that you’ve been able to find?

PENNER: No, I really haven’t. I did speak to James Clark about that and he said that although there are no vocal opponents, some in Tijuana, some organizations, he didn’t name them, asked what’s in this for us? And, you know, that’s a solid question. And on this side of the border, some negative response have come from people who think that any deal with Mexico is bad.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Frances wants to join the conversation, calling from San Diego. Good morning, Frances, welcome to These Days.

FRANCES (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Gloria, I congratulate you on doing all this research on a really multi-layered idea and plan with many, many investors involved.

PENNER: Well, thank you, Frances. I had nothing else to do this weekend.

FRANCES: Well, I’m sure you were busy and well occupied. My question is do we know who’s involved in Otay-Tijuana Ventures (sic)? And in terms of the Equity Group Investments group, that’s from Chicago. Otay-Tijuana Ventures is local, right?

PENNER: No. Otay-Tijuana Ventures is the name of the combined group. In other words…

FRANCES: Oh.

PENNER: …it’s the Equity Investment Group and then it’s the Mexican investors and together they are Otay-Tijuana Ventures.

FRANCES: The group – What was that name of that other Grupo something Pacfico?

PENNER: Yes, that is the…

FRANCES: Grupo, what was the A?

PENNER: The A, that’s like Aeropuerto (sic) for airport.

FRANCES: Oh, okay.

PENNER: Right.

FRANCES: Okay, got you.

PENNER: And it’s known as GAP, and I think if you Google it, you’ll see what it is. But it really is the private company that has taken over the running of 12 airports in Mexico when apparently the government wasn’t doing such a smashing job. And that’s been ongoing since 1998. So for 12 years now, the major airports in Mexico have been run by a private company. Hey, I guess that’s called outsourcing, isn’t it?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I guess it is. Thank you, Frances, for the call. How do these private investors plan to make money? Are they going to charge a toll for using this foot bridge?

PENNER: Well, there is a ticket surcharge, which goes to the company, and then there will be—this is probably going to be the big baby—it’s parking fees because the company owns the land, 24 and a half acres of it, and will probably lease it for parking to companies like, you know, our big Ace Parking company. They might run it themselves. Greg Rose, who is with the corporation, Equity Corporation, said that, you know, they’re thinking about running it themselves but James Clark said it probably will be leased. So there will be a crossing fee, which is similar to other toll bridges that exist between the U.S. and Canada or U.S. and Mexico, and then there will be this ticket surcharge which I guess will go right on your ticket, and then there will be a cost if you park there. And so they expect to make some money and they better because, Maureen, I asked Greg Rose how much this is all going to cost and he said between $68 and $70 million dollars.

CAVANAUGH: So if everything goes as planned and they get all the permits they need to complete this project, when do they – are they looking for this project to be completed and to – people to start using it?

PENNER: Yeah, well, they say that Otay-Tijuana Ventures, at least they say that it will be up and running by the end of 2012, and that’s just a bit more than two years from now. So I assume this is really on the fast track.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like it. Well, thank you so much for explaining it.

PENNER: You’re welcome. And it was fun to research it.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent, and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, we’ll hear about LA’s Project 50, a revolutionary approach to housing the homeless. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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