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Box 3. Spotlight on Two California Gateways: San Ysidro and Otay Mesa

Box 3. Spotlight on Two California Gateways: San Ysidro and Otay Mesa

Two of the busiest U.S. border gateways, the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, processed over 41.5 million northbound passengers in personal vehicles and 8 million northbound pedestrians in 2000 (see table for box 3 and map 2). The crossing station areas, which serve as the main gateways for San Diego-Tijuana passenger traffic, are not only integral parts of the transborder infrastructure, but also two huge complexes in and of themselves.1

At the San Ysidro entry, due to the extremely heavy traffic volume, there are 24 primary inspection booths designated for passenger vehicles and 16 primary inspection booths designated for pedestrians.2 In order to handle the 24-hour, 7-day a week crossing activity, between 200 and 275 U.S. Customs agents, as well as over 200 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, are stationed at the U.S. side of the port. From the north, two freeways3 and the San Diego light rail line feed the border station, where extensive parking facilities are located. Adjacent factory outlet stores, fast food restaurants, and motels round out the border area.

Although known principally as Californias busiest commercial port of entry, Otay Mesa also receives its fair share of passenger traffic. The port is notable for its proximity to Tijuana International Airport (the airport is situated only a few kilometers west of the border stations).

Otay Mesas administration maintains a commercial vehicle inspection facility and a passenger processing facility, located one kilometer apart. In contrast to the round-the-clock activity at the San Ysidro port, Otay Mesa only opens its gates to passenger vehicles and pedestrians between the hours of 6:00 am and 10:00 pm (loaded trucks may only gain northbound entry between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm). The limited crossing hours and lighter passenger load at Otay Mesa are reflected in the staff size and lane total at the northbound passenger processing facilityonly 45 Customs inspectors and 41 administrative/support employees operate the stations 6 pedestrian booths and 13 primary passenger vehicle inspection lanes. Accordingly, the Otay Mesa crossing area includes fast food restaurants and some retail activity, but is not as well developed for the passenger consumer market as the San Ysidro area. The commercial vehicle inspection facility has 5 primary processing gates and 100 secondary inspection spaces.

Current delays at the San Ysidro gateway have become a regional concern, with the potential for even greater traffic volume in the near future. According to a 2000 survey,4 San Ysidros northbound queue waiting time for passenger vehicles averaged 23.1 minutes during morning peak hours and 25.9 minutes during evening peak hours. The San Ysidro ports infrastructure currently meets traffic demand and the stations authorities can increase capacity by keeping all 24 northbound lanes open longer than the normal 2 hours of full operations. However, a large increase in traffic flowwhich is certainly possible over timecould test the ports infrastructure.

Partly to stem future delays, a mostly automated inspection process involving a dedicated commuter lane and electronic inspection technology has been implemented. The technology, called Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) was first installed at Otay Mesa in November 1995. SENTRI allows pre-registered travelers who frequently cross the border to use a special lane offering brief, mostly automated inspections. Two SENTRI lanes opened at San Ysidro in September 2000. For an annual fee of $129, commuters receive a special radio device that is attached to their vehicle and access to the swiftly moving SENTRI lanes. As vehicles approach the border in the SENTRI lanes, they are screened by the system. An inspector uses a computer to compare digitized photographs and passenger identification numbers with the people in the vehicle. Though little data on San Ysidros SENTRI system are available, Otay Mesa participants reportedly seldom experience waits of more than three minutes, even at peak hours.

Over the next 20 years, there may be a rise in the number of cross-border trips at these two entry points, especially if strong economic growth continues in Mexico. Regionally, projections show San Diego and northwestern Baja California undergoing growth in population, trade flows, cross-border worker commuting, and jobs. All of these factors may serve to boost traffic flow totals for San Ysidro and Otay Mesa to all-time high levels.

End Notes

1 The San Ysidro port of entry is located approximately 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of downtown San Diego and 8 miles (13 kilometers) inland from the Pacific Ocean. Southbound border crossers enter Puerta Mexico when leaving San Ysidro. The Otay Mesa port of entry, opened in 1984, is located just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) to the east of the San Ysidro port of entry and is bordered by Mesa de Otay, Mexico, on the south. The Otay Mesa port is accessed by southbound travel on State Route 905 (SR 905) or by following Otay Mesa Road.

2 In primary inspections, passengers and pedestrians state their citizenship, present entry documents when appropriate, and declare goods being carried into the United States. Based on the answers to questions and, for vehicles, a quick visual inspection, individuals and vehicles are allowed to enter. Primary inspection takes between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Not all commercial vehicles are inspected. Those that are chosen for a primary inspection are assessed visually and their documents reviewed. Primary inspection of commercial vehicles takes between 15 minutes and 3 hours.

Secondary inspections take place in an area apart from the primary inspection station. Vehicles are searched and their occupants questioned. This type of inspection takes from just a few minutes to several hours. Pedestrian secondary inspections include a physical examination of bags and packages.

Commercial vehicles who pass the primary inspection are subject to random selection for a reinspection. Secondary inspection is the same as the primary inspection, but is conducted by privately contracted inspectors who check the reliability and efficiency of the initial inspection.

3 These are Interstate (I) I-5 and I-805. Both are eight-lane freeways, with I-805 terminating one-half mile from San Ysidro and connecting/merging with I-5.

4 Parsons Transportation Group, Final Report: San Diego-Baja California Cross-Border Transportation Study (San Diego, CA: November 2000), p. 24.

Updated: Saturday, May 20, 2017