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New Otay Mesa border crossing might open ahead of schedule

Officials from the United States and Mexico are now saying that a new border crossing planned for Otay Mesa might be finished ahead of schedule. KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis says the new crossing is expected to reduce border wait times and boost economic activity in the region.

The new port of entry could drastically reduce border wait times, but only if there are enough Customs and Border Protection agents to staff it.

The new Otay Mesa East Port of Entry aims to have average border wait times of only 20 minutes — a drastic improvement on the hours motorists currently spend waiting to cross.

But the United States and Mexico need to build the new crossing before the lower wait times will come.

On Monday, officials from both countries gathered on the U.S. side of the planned crossing to announce that it might open ahead of schedule.

The reason for the optimism is Mexico has now secured most of the public right of way for the project, which is on land that was owned by private businesses and residents.

“The biggest update today … is that the government of Mexico has now secured about 90 percent of the rights of way,” said California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis. “This is obviously very, very important.”

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The United States has already secured the land, chosen a design and begun construction.

Even though Mexico is not yet at the point where it can begin construction, officials at Monday’s briefing were confident that the project could be completed slightly ahead of its scheduled completion in 2024.

Representatives said Mexico currently has 17 border infrastructure projects in the works — and the Otay East border crossing is their top priority. Even above addressing cross-border sewage pollution.

The new port of entry is expected to provide an economic boost to the region.

Kounalakis pointed out that even amid the pandemic, California exported $21 billion goods through the Calexico and Otay Mesa border crossings.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said a new port of entry will have social benefits as well.

“I think we make a mistake sometimes — we talk too much about the border in terms of dollars and cents,” he said. “Because this really is about people, about families, the free flow of individuals from one side to another.”

Congressman Juan Vargas, who represents California’s borderlands, said he is concerned about Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staffing levels.

Staffing levels are already a significant reason for long border wait times in San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and the Cross Border Xpress.

Vargas said he did not want to build a state-of-the-art border crossing only to have lanes closed because there aren’t enough customs agents to fill them.

“We don’t want staffing to come from San Ysidro and Otay Mesa and be brought here because then we’ll have the problem there,” he said. “In fact, they need quite a bit of staffing.”

Vargas said he is trying to get Congress to allocate more money to hire additional CBP agents specifically to manage the new port.