Officials from across the San Diego-Baja California region on Friday celebrated a painstakingly negotiated binational agreement for collecting tolls at the envisioned new Otay Mesa border crossing.
The deal — unanimously approved by the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors — calls for one tolling facility located north of the border. The revenue would be split evenly with Mexico, pulling in an estimated $3.4 billion for each country over the next four decades.
“The financial strategy that’s being presented here is the result of months of nonstop meetings and bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico,” Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general of Mexico in San Diego, said at SANDAG’s board meeting on Friday. “This is U.S. and Mexico cooperation at its finest.”
The roughly $1.47 billion project is aimed at dramatically reducing wait times as well as emission-spewing idling at the two current ports of entry in Otay Mesa and San Ysidro.
The new facility, dubbed Otay Mesa East, is expected to open in 2024, providing 10 lanes in both directions serving passenger and commercial traffic, according to SANDAG. Average crossing times at the new facility are projected to be from five to 25 minutes for passenger vehicles and 15 to 45 minutes for freight traffic.
Toll pricing would fluctuate with traffic to discourage gridlock. Signs would alert approaching drivers to crossing fees as well as wait times.
County Supervisor Nora Vargas said at Friday’s meeting that she remembered waiting for long stretches as a child to cross the border in San Diego.
“This is a historic moment for all of us who call this region home because what we want is to make sure that everybody in this community has access not only to economic opportunities but clean air and a good quality of life,” she said.
The project reached a milestone this summer with the completion of the connecting highway network, which included work on state routes 125, 905 and 11.
The border facility broke ground in August and a month later secured a crucial $150 million in federal funding.
However, the new port of entry is not yet fully funded. While SANDAG has secured $719 million for the project, the agency is still looking for another $418 million, largely through loans and grants.
Likewise, Mexico has ponied up $315 million but still needs to find another $20 million to complete the deal.
Congress also needs to approve additional funding for Customs and Border Protection staffing to operate Otay Mesa East, according to officials.
“This is certainly not mission accomplished,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria at the public meeting Friday. “There are many more steps to go. Mainly I’m focused on that our federal partners provide the staffing to make sure this port of entry can work.”
Many companies such as Samsung, Nike and Amazon operate factories in Tijuana that ship goods over the border. It’s estimated that reducing lengthy wait times could increase economic output in both countries by up to roughly $3.4 billion a year and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Otay Mesa East’s 120-acre site is larger than the combined footprint of the existing border crossing facilities in San Ysidro and Otay Mesa. Officials said that new lanes could be added in the future to accommodate more growth.
“We’re planning for the future,” said Mario Orso, chief deputy district director-capital of Caltrans District 11. “There are no other places to grow our border infrastructure in the future in San Diego County, so this is our last shot.”