San Diego Business Journal

The proposed border crossing east of the existing Otay Mesa port of entry would charge tolls based on the day and hour of use, similar to the system used by commuters using FasTrak lanes on Interstate 15.

Charging tolls based on the time of day is part of a state bill that would establish a separate toll authority for the estimated $700 million project that includes both a new border-crossing station two miles east of the existing port of entry, and a 2-mile connecting road from the crossing to state Route 905 called state Route 11.

SB 1486, introduced by state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-Chula Vista, calls for the authority to be managed and operated by the San Diego Association of Governments, a transportation planning agency funded by a countywide half-cent sales tax known as TransNet.

The bill was introduced Feb. 22.

The push for the new border crossing has intensified in recent years as wait times at the area's two major border crossings in Otay Mesa and San Ysidro have escalated.

The excessive wait times are having a huge impact on the economies of the entire region, says Gary Gallegos, executive director of Sandag.

Costing Billions

"The border waits are costing our economy billions of dollars and our forecast shows that if we don't do anything about it, those impacts will probably double in the next 10 to 15 years," Gallegos said.

Sandag says that wait times at existing ports are routinely more than an hour for passenger vehicles and four hours for trucks.

A Sandag study done last year estimated the economic impact to the combined San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico, region resulting from increased wait times at the border was $5.1 billion and about 51,600 lost jobs.

Instead of depending on traditional funding sources from federal and state agencies to get the project done, local officials and Sandag decided to create the first toll authority for a border crossing in California.

A number of bridges and roads charge tolls along the Michigan border with Canada and along the Mexican border in Texas.

A 2006 Sandag financial feasibility study found that about 75 percent of the 3,600 commuters surveyed would be willing to pay or inclined to pay a toll, Gallegos says.

According to the Sandag study, tolls for passenger cars could range from 80 cents for off-peak use to $7 at peak times. The tolls could range from $32 to $47 for large trucks.

Generally, peak times at Otay Mesa for passenger cars are 6 to 8 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. For trucks, the peak hours are 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m.

Ducheny, whose district runs along the California-Mexican border from the Pacific Ocean to Arizona, has been an advocate for a new Otay Mesa crossing for years.

She sees the toll authority as a way of attracting more federal funds and to get the project done faster, says Clarissa Falcon, a Ducheny spokeswoman.

Built Sooner Than Later

"We want to show the federal government we're serious about getting this port of entry built sooner rather than later," Falcon said. "We also want to show our Mexican counterparts that we're serious about getting the port built."

Building the massive border project requires a presidential permit, which the California Department of Transportation applied for in January.

The application is under review by the Department of State.

"Our goal is to have the approval of the permit by the spring," said Mark Baza, Caltrans project manager.

Sandag officials say they hope to have the toll authority operating by early 2009, and to issue bonds for the project that year.

The project would also require multiple environmental studies and reviews.

A best case scenario would have construction beginning in 2013, with completion in 2015, according to Baza.

While the border crossing has been in the planning stages for about a decade, both Caltrans and Sandag realize the window for getting the project done is closing.

Developers and landowners in Otay Mesa are talking with the county about various plans for their properties and waiting to see exactly how the project and the connecting road will be aligned, Baza says.

All of the land for the border crossing and connecting road has yet to be acquired, he says.