SAN DIEGO—This city has spent decades looking for ways to expand its cramped, one-runway airport. Today the region is edging closer to a solution, but it comes with a catch: It's in Mexico. Developers backed by a group of U.S. and Mexican investors said they are close to breaking ground on a privately owned pedestrian bridge that would allow Americans and foreign travelers to cross the border directly into and out of Tijuana's General Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport, or TIJ.
The project has been in the planning phases for years. It has approvals from both the U.S. and Mexican federal governments and has overcome most permitting and environmental obstacles. But other important steps remain. One is financing. The other is crafting an arrangement with the U.S. government that would clear the way for the private facility to be staffed with public employees from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The facility is slated to be built on a 58-acre parcel about 20 miles southeast of downtown San Diego that on recent afternoon was nothing but weeds and sun-baked dirt. The value is in the lot's location: Just on the other side of the border, past a razor-wire fence that is scarred with patched-up holes, sits TIJ airport and its multistory parking garage.
The bridge would have a crossing fee of roughly $13 to $17, investors said, and the facility would feel much like a modern airport terminal. The first phase, projected to cost around $50 million, includes retail shops and an adjacent parking lot. But a terminal this is not. Passengers going to TIJ from the U.S. wouldn't be able to check in until they have hauled themselves and their bags across the football-field-long crossing into the actual airport. And there won't be any kind of special border-crossing treatment, aside from the obvious convenience of having a direct crossing between the U.S. and Tijuana's airport. U.S. customs will be at the base of the bridge on the U.S. side. Mexican customs will be on the other side in Mexico.
Unlike the far-flung suburban airports many U.S. cities have, San Diego International sits smack in downtown. It is snugly surrounded by a bay, an industrial district and the U.S. Marine Corps' West Coast boot-camp facility. It is "the busiest single-runway commercial service airport in the nation," according to its website.. Plans to add capacity to San Diego International go back to at least the 1950s, and the debate was tragically energized in 1978 when a collision between an approaching jetliner and a small plane from another field killed 144 people as the aircraft crashed into the city's densely populated North Park neighborhood. None of those plans panned out, however, and in 2006 San Diego voters shot down a proposal to move the airport east, where land is more plentiful.
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