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Judge Tentatively Rules Against MTS in Border Bus Terminal Fight

In a tentative ruling, a Superior Court Judge ruled against MTS and chastised the agency for the state of a long-distance bus terminal she called confusing, unsafe and haphazard, despite its location just steps from one of the busiest border crossings in the world.

The bus terminal at the U.S.-Mexico border. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

After spending nearly five years and $500,000, the Metropolitan Transit System looks to have lost its a legal dispute with a property owner at the San Ysidro border crossing.

In a tentative ruling released on Christmas Eve, a Superior Court Judge ruled against MTS and chastised the agency for the state of a long-distance bus terminal she called confusing, unsafe and haphazard, despite its location just steps from one of the busiest border crossings in the world.

The case revolves around the two-story McDonald’s building wedged between the trolley station and long-distance bus terminal at the border. MTS alleged the company that owned the building, Grand Central West, was trespassing because it allowed its customers to access the bus terminal through a door from its building.

Judge Katherine Bacal has said MTS’s argument didn’t hold up. The public transit agency has since filed a motion requesting changes to the judge’s order with an argument largely aligned with its case during the trial.

If Bacal doesn’t see anything that changes her mind, MTS will be left with an expensive terminal that’s created a confusing experience for passengers and has yet to return $1 in revenue to the agency. The agency could appeal, and continue spending time and money to maintain the underwhelming state of its property in a high-traffic area, in hopes of eventually getting its neighbor to board up a doorway that lets passengers access the bus station.

Bacal did not just side against MTS on the merits of the case, after the agency filed for a restraining order against its neighbor and began spending public funds to get the court to intervene.

She also included a scathing commentary directed at both MTS and Grand Central West for the sorry state of the area.

MTS hired a private company to build and operate the terminal on the backside of the McDonald’s building in 2012. It ended up costing double the initial $255,000 estimate, and MTS has thus far received nothing in lease payments that were expected to bring in $840,000 by now.

Community groups have panned the state of the facility, with one calling it “archaic at best” and saying the bathroom facilities, which are partially open to the elements and offer little privacy, showed a disregard for the decency of travelers.

Bacal joined the chorus, describing a chaotic scene around the terminal when she visited to better understand the dispute.

“Although not necessary to this decision, the Court feels compelled to note the following,” Bacal wrote. “Neither MTS nor Grand Central should be proud about the state of their property. MTS’s design is confusing, to say the least. Both pedestrians and vehicles seemed unsure about where to go. Numerous people were jaywalking, some of whom appeared to be doing so unintentionally, because they just didn’t know

what path to follow. If the idea for the (terminal) was to alleviate ‘haphazard, congested, and inefficient’ pedestrian and vehicle activity and enhance public safety and pedestrian movement MTS clearly did not fully succeed,” she wrote.

But Grand Central West – which would like to operate the second floor of its facility as an extension of the terminal, leasing space to long-haul bus operators and allowing travelers to easily access the bus loading area – got its share of blame, too.

“Similarly, the inside of the McDonald’s building was not only confusing, it was dark and dirty,” Bacal wrote. “In its entirety, and taken together, the bus platform and the McDonald’s building leave the impression of something that is incomplete and unfinished.”

To anyone who has visited the facility, Bacal’s observations should not be surprising or controversial. Grand Central West representatives have regularly argued that the state of the facility wouldn’t be accepted in other parts of the city – a compelling argument that is as true for their property as it is for the bus station itself.

Nonetheless, the tentative ruling – unless it undergoes significant changes – suggests that MTS has fought a neighbor with a lot of time and money that could have been spent improving an area meant to help thousands of border crossers a year to conveniently board private buses to large cities and work opportunities to the north and east of San Diego.

“The case has had a very long, and maybe even tortured, history,” Bacal wrote.

MTS argued that Grand Central West had trespassed onto its property by installing a door from the second floor of its building onto the bus property. The agency claimed the doorway interfered with the bus station’s operations and created safety issues, especially by encouraging “wildcatting,” a term for unregulated, unofficial bus operators who prey on travelers who think they’re legitimate, subjecting them to unsafe vehicles or even taking them to the wrong city altogether.

But Bacal said MTS’s argument didn’t make sense, since it treated the bus station as public property that could be accessed by anyone, so long as they walked around the building instead of through the backdoor.

“In contrast, the evidence here shows that MTS invited the public to enter its property, but wants to eject only the backdoor-using patrons/employees of Grand Central,” Bacal wrote. “Not only would such a ruling not make sense, it is not supported by the law. Indeed, MTS admits that the bus facility is used for a public purpose and is generally open to the public.”

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