The Roadblocks to a Cross-Border Trolley - Voice of San Diego

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The Roadblocks to a Cross-Border Trolley

Baja California’s secretary of tourism said at a recent gathering that a cross-border trolley could solve long-running congestion problems and better connect the United States and Mexico. The appeal is easy to understand, but plenty of hurdles to the plan still exist.

The San Ysidro Transit Center is the southern terminus for the Blue Line trolley. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Baja California’s secretary of tourism proposed a novel solution last month to long-running congestion problems at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Oscar Escobedo, speaking at a binational tourism hearing in National City, suggested that the United States and Mexico could build a cross-border trolley to better connect the mega-region.

Escobedo floated the idea of using part of an already built-out cross-border cargo railroad. The trolley, he said, would be used by passengers who were pre-cleared — like those who can use the SENTRI program’s commuter lanes to pass more quickly through ports of entry.

Much of the infrastructure is already built, he said at the meeting. And such a trolley would reduce emissions and traffic at the border. Escobedo said the idea was discussed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and officials seemed open to it because checking people all at once on the trolley would be easier than checking thousands of individual vehicles.

Escobedo didn’t respond to requests for further information about the idea. The Metropolitan Transit System and SANDAG, which handle transportation infrastructure on the U.S. side of the border, said they had no one working on such a project. CBP’s San Diego office said it also wasn’t aware of any discussions on such a project.

But the appeal isn’t hard to understand.

The Blue Line, which starts in San Ysidro at the border, has the highest ridership of any trolley line in San Diego. The San Ysidro trolley station is the second most active on San Diego’s network, with about 17,955 riders daily. Many of those riders come from Tijuana. And making it easy for workers and goods to cross through ports of entry without excessive border wait times is a persistent issue in the region.

Back in 2007, SANDAG estimated that delays at the border between San Diego County and Baja California cost the United States $7.2 billion in gross output and more than 62,000 jobs.

“That is a monetary loss equivalent to 18 Super Bowls and an annual job loss equivalent to four companies the size of Google,” former SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure in May 2016.

The federal government and local agencies have therefore been investing millions of dollars in border infrastructure to facilitate the flow of goods and people across the U.S.-Mexico border – though recent developments at the border have been increasing wait times again. Since 2015, the region has seen an expansion of one port of entry, a new cross-border airport facility, additional highway infrastructure to access border crossings and a new transit hub to make it easier for people in San Diego to get to and from the border. By 2023, we can expect to see the expansion of two more ports of entry, a new bus route from downtown to the border and a new, state-of-the-art port of entry east of the two existing ones.

Local governments in Mexico have been eyeing the idea of a cross-border rail for a while.

The city has laid out plans for a light-rail system that links up to the Mexican portion of the railroad known as the Desert Line, or the Via Corta, which is also being renovated for use as a cargo train at night and a passenger train during the day.

The trolley system proposal was laid out in a planning document from the Baja secretary of infrastructure and urban development. It would span about 20 kilometers in Tijuana and could serve 65,000 passengers and ultimately connect with Via Corta/Desert Line.

Hurdles to the plan still exist, though. The light rail system in Tijuana hasn’t gone much further than conceptual stages and even the development of other transit initiatives in the city, like its Bus Rapid Transit system, have stalled.

The railroad tracks also run east and west. Most of the cross-border traffic isn’t going very far east.

The infrastructure for the railroad tracks themselves are also stalling.

Baja California Railroad, the private company working on rehabilitating the track, has made little progress on rehabilitating the Desert Line – the portion from Tecate to Plaster City, since it took over the lease on the U.S. side more than two years ago, the Union-Tribune reported in February. A major piece of infrastructure for the cross-border cargo train – an inspection facility at the border – doesn’t yet exist.

In February, Baja California Railroad told the Union-Tribune it was waiting for CBP’s feedback on the project. CBP told the newspaper that it was still waiting on proposals from the company.

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