SAN DIEGO -- The line of cars to cross the U.S.-Mexico border into San Diego on a recent weekday stretched far beyond the eye’s reach. It wound around curves, crossed the bridge spanning the Tijuana River, nearly reaching the city’s financial district. Somewhere near the middle, Candelario Gonzalez was sitting in his white pickup truck, his wrists draped over the steering wheel.
“I’ve been waiting about an hour,” he said, “And I estimate the entire wait’s going to be two hours and forty minutes to cross.”
This is a daily routine for Gonzalez, who lives in Tijuana but works in San Diego six days a week. Waits approaching three hours are the norm, meaning he spends upward of 18 hours a week just sitting in his truck, idling.
For the tens of thousands who cross this border daily, these exasperatingly long waits are a constant source of frustration, not to mention strained bladders -- the reason Gonzalez gave for depriving himself of water while in his truck.
But they’ve also become one of the biggest sources of frustration for the civic, business and tourism communities on both sides of the border, because of the untold economic losses they believe result from people’s unwillingness to brave the lines.
Three years ago, when drug violence south of the border spiked, southbound cross-border tourism dried up. As violence has decreased and those fears have eased, officials are trying to draw tourists back. But Kenn Morris, who runs a cross-border consulting group, said they have a new hurdle to overcome.
“It’s not security anymore, it’s border wait times,” he said, based on findings from surveys his firm has conducted. “If fewer people are crossing because they say, ‘I’m not going to take three hours or four hours to wait in line,’ then that impacts the San Diego economy,” and also the economic recovery south of the border.
Federal statistics compiled by Morris show that since 2000, the number of people legally crossing the southern border into the U.S. has fallen by nearly half, from 24 million to just 13 million a month, in large part due to long border waits.
Morris’ firm estimates that border crossers who do brave the lines spend $10 million to $15 million a day in San Diego and California, with the potential being much greater if long waits are shortened and some of those historic crossing trends can be revived.
Addressing long waits are something Morris said has been a lower priority since Sept. 11, 2001, when the border clamped down amid security concerns.
In recent years, customs officials have implemented programs meant to ease the pain of long border waits, at least for some travelers, by reserving some lanes for crossers who have been pre-screened. Those measures have only provided some relief because of the need to work within the existing, outdated infrastructure.
But more permanent relief appears to be finally on the way. For the first time since 1974, the San Ysidro-Tijuana port of entry, the busiest land border crossing in the world, is being renovated and expanded.
Old inspection booths are being replaced with new high-tech ones that Customs and Border Protection Officials expect will allow officers to speed up processing times. An extra booth is being added to each lane, meaning the number of inspection booths will double by the time the project is completed in 2014.
“The speed at which an individual inspection takes place is going to be faster, much more efficient, and the flow of traffic is going to be better for the traveler,” said Joseph Misenhelter, assistant director of passenger processing at the San Ysidro port.
Misenhelter said the hope is to cut waits down to a half hour. But that’s just for cars.
There’s plenty of frustration among people who cross on foot, too, waiting in a line that often twists and turns for more than half a mile.
There are plans to improve wait times for them also, said Anthony Kleppe, a manager at the General Services Administration, the federal agency building the project. Plans eventually call for two separate facilities, compared to the single existing one, to process pedestrian crossers, Kleppe said.
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But Congress hasn’t funded that project, exasperating business and civic leaders on both sides of the border, and the daily crossers, of course.
Jesus Maestro was in the pedestrian line recently, having resigned to his fate the way most regular border crossers here have.
“What can you do?” he asked, as he shuffled forward along with the mass. “Nothing. Just wait. That’s all you can do.”