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Border Crossing Wait Times Plummet At San Ysidro

Evening Edition

For about a week now, vehicles crossing into the U.S. at the San Ysidro border have witnessed a drastic change: the wait to be processed by U.S. border officials can be measured in minutes, instead of hours. KPBS Fronteras reporter Jill Replogle says that the reduced border wait is changing lives and could, in fact, change the local economy.

Aired 9/26/14 on KPBS News.

Wait times to cross into the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry have plummeted as the first phase of the port expansion project nears conclusion. Business leaders and cross-border commuters are ecstatic.

Tijuana — a city just 20 miles from San Diego — just got a couple of hours closer.

“I can’t believe it,” Efren Espinoza said, as he approached the San Ysidro Port of Entry in a white Ford pickup with tropical-themed seat covers. Espinoza commutes from Mexico every day to his construction job in the U.S. He said he often waits two to three hours to cross the border.

On a recent weekday morning, it took him less than 10 minutes to cross.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s good for everybody, especially for us that commute every day.”

The time spent sitting on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro border in hot cars, for hours on end, with exhaust pouring in the window and no bathroom in site could be yesterday’s nightmare. After several years of construction and lane closures, U.S. border authorities last week opened all existing lanes to northbound traffic — 25 lanes, most of them able to process two cars at a time.

“We have seen a significant reduction in the wait times here at San Ysidro Port of Entry,” port director Sidney Aki said.

The first phase of an ambitious port expansion project is nearly complete, Aki said. The number of inspection booths has doubled and technology has been upgraded to allow more efficient processing of travelers.

Aki, like the business communities on both sides of the border, emphasized the economic benefit of processing more travelers through the border faster. He cited a travel industry statistic, which estimates that every 33 visitors who enter the U.S. create one U.S. job.

“That is huge,” Aki said, “especially when you think of the amount and volume of individuals actually crossing per day.”

An average of 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians cross into the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry each day.

“Do the multiplication," Aki said. "That’s a lot of jobs, a lot of commerce building here in our area.”

Longtime border residents remember the days when the U.S.-Mexico border was usually just a minor inconvenience. San Diegans would travel south to Puerto Nuevo to eat lobster on weekends. Tijuanenses would come north for a quick shopping trip to Mission Valley. But that all changed after terrorists took down the Twin Towers.

Security became the top border priority and the lines to cross into the U.S. got longer and longer.

A 2005 study from the San Diego Association of Governments found that more than 3 million potential working hours were spent waiting in line at the border. And San Diego was losing out on some $2 billion annually, in part because Mexicans — and Americans living in Mexico — who might have wanted to take more trips across the border weren’t doing so because of the long lines.

Now, the border as minor, instead of major, inconvenience might be back.

“It’s a game changer for our region,” said Paola Ávila, who heads the Mexico Business Center at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Ávila admits that Baja California still has an image problem because of heightened violence there in years past. But at least now “you can also go and come back within a normal, average amount of time that it would take you to go, say, to North County for dinner,” she said.

By 9 a.m., the morning sun has begun to heat up the mostly empty expanse of asphalt just south of the San Ysidro inspection stations manned by agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Javier Martinez donned a wide-brimmed sombrero with a hole in the front and set off to hawk crispy wheels of sweet, fried buñuelos to drivers queuing up to cross into the U.S.

“Try them! I want to sell!” he sings out in Spanish, with a voice fit for a mariachi band.

Vendors like Martinez — and there are hundreds of them here — aren’t nearly as happy as commuters about the improvements at San Ysidro.

“It’s tough right now,” Martinez said. “People don’t get hungry or thirsty when the lines are so short.”

Martinez said he had altered his business to try and adapt. He used to sell tejuino, a fermented corn drink that was prepared on the spot.

Now the cars are moving too fast, he said, so he switched to pre-made treats.

But some potential customers might find themselves with so much extra time that they’re willing to enjoy a leisurely meal at the border before they cross.

Robert Saenz, who works at a jewelry store just north of the border, pulled up behind a burrito cart about 50 yards from the U.S. inspection booths and ordered his favorite, chicharrón.

“I used to be in line here like three, almost three and a half hours,” Saenz said. “So right now I’m so happy. I can enjoy my burrito. I can have it more relaxed.”

Saenz is also excited about the gas money he’s going to save not idling in line, and the stress he’s going to avoid. But he’s not ready to change up his habit of leaving for work three hours ahead of time.

“I don’t want to trust,” he said. “Because you don’t know what happens the next day. I don’t want to have problems in my work.”

Just in case the short line trend doesn’t hold.

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