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A Non-Wall Building Boom Is Coming to Otay Mesa

New development, improved infrastructure and advances in border technology are setting Otay up to be a major industrial and commercial hub, even as the Trump administration prepares to invest $21.6 billion in a new border wall.

Improved roads and infrastructure are among many changes planned for Otay Mesa. / Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft

A building boom is poised to make Otay Mesa an entirely different place in the coming years – but not for the reasons you might have heard.

New development, improved infrastructure and advances in border technology are setting Otay up to be a major industrial and commercial hub, even as the Trump administration prepares to invest up to $21.6 billion in a new border wall.

Home to some of the last large, undeveloped swaths of land in the county, San Diego leaders hope Otay will become a place to address San Diego County’s housing and industrial development shortage.

If the plans materialize, it would continue a recent trend for the border region in which local leaders try to improve border infrastructure and better connect the United States and Mexico, even as national dialogue emphasizes walls and separation.

Just a bit to the west of where eight 30-foot border wall prototypes were recently unveiled, for example, local, state and even federal agencies have committed to hundreds of millions of dollars in border infrastructure. In the past year, a new pedestrian crossing opened in San Ysidro, a cross-border airport facility connects San Diegans directly with the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa Port of Entry became one of the first land crossings for new, automated cargo customs clearances within Mexican customs.

“We’re definitely excited about how things are progressing in our community,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

Building Up Otay Mesa

The vacancy rate for commercial space in Otay is very low, and roughly 350,000 square feet of industrial development is currently under construction, Mier y Teran said.

Otay saw little development until the 1980s, when the border crossing opened. As the North American Free Trade Agreement expanded cross-border trade in the 1990s and SANDAG built highways like the 805, 905 and now SR-11, manufacturers, warehouses and businesses popped up.

Of the ports of entry in California, Otay Mesa sees the vast majority of commercial truck traffic. More than 845,000 of the 1.2 million trucks crossing into California from Mexico come through Otay, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

After more than a decade, an updated Otay Mesa community plan and one of two specific village plans have been approved by San Diego City Council. In the eastern part of Otay, a mixed-used development plan is undergoing environmental review with the County of San Diego.

Infrastructure was the last major obstacle facing the Otay community. Otay Mesa faced an approximately $510 million funding gap in infrastructure investment. The truck traffic needed better management both at the border and in Otay, and the roads were in bad shape. There’s hardly any public transit connecting Otay with downtown San Diego.

The Metropolitan Transit agency expects the South Bay Bus Rapid Transit – a $113 million effort – to  start operations from Otay Mesa Port of Entry to downtown via eastern Chula Vista next year. A new Otay Mesa Transit Center will also be built near the port of entry.

There have also been informal, preliminary discussions between MTS and the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce to start operating jitney buses – vans that take workers from the border to various employment hubs. The service already operates in the San Ysidro area.

The city of San Diego will be improving and widening La Media Road, a major thoroughfare for commercial trucks. The project will cost more than $39 million.

Finally, the community is set to start receiving benefits from an enhanced infrastructure facilities district in a few years. The special district would allow the community to keep and re-invest increases in property taxes into local infrastructure like freeway onramps, widening roads, fire stations and parks.

A report on the Otay financing district estimated that it would yield nearly $800 million in property tax increments over the next 45 years.

More Border Upgrades

The border itself will also be undergoing vast expansions and upgrades.

President Donald Trump’s current budget, which still must be approved by Congress, includes $123 million for an expansion and modernization of the existing Otay Mesa Port of Entry that would increase the capacity and efficiency of the pedestrian crossing, among other improvements.

“As Otay evolved, its traffic began to increase both through the passenger and cargo side,” said Pete Flores, director of field operations in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s San Diego Field Office. “There have been constraints of current infrastructure in alleviating wait times and processing delays.”

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has been working on improving the efficiency of the Otay crossing for a while, particularly by expanding its trusted traveler programs, like SENTRI, which allows for expedited crossing for those pre-approved by CBP. Roughly 23 percent of people going through Otay have SENTRI and 58 percent use the Ready Lane, a dedicated lane for travelers who have identification with a special technology that allows CBP to process them faster. Last year, there was a 10 percent increase in SENTRI passengers and a 5 percent increase in Ready Lane usage.

CBP’s newest initiative will be launching a Unified Cargo Processing program at the Otay Mesa crossing in December, which will allow Mexican and U.S. customs officials to inspect cargo trucks at the same time – cutting down on wait times so trucks won’t have to be inspected twice. The program would only be available to commercial truck operators who are part of the FAST program – a trusted commercial traveler program. Roughly 35 percent of trucks coming into the U.S. from Mexico in Otay are already part of the program.

“The cooperation, information-sharing and joint operations with Mexico – the trust being developed between our two agencies here is the best I’ve seen,” Flores said. “Otay Mesa, for us, is our largest commercial port by far. So the benefit of that is to our trade stakeholders. They can increase their competitiveness.”

Otay II, the new port of entry farther east of the existing Otay Mesa crossing, is also moving forward.

Caltrans Trade Corridor Director Mario Orso said he expects construction on the last portions of SR-11 connecting to the new port of entry to begin in 2019, and for construction on the border crossing itself to begin shortly after.

Orso said various agencies have already committed roughly $370 million to Otay II. The vast majority of funds are from federal and state government agencies.

Improvements and additional construction to roads leading to the new crossing will continue to undergo construction and improvements.

Otay II will be a toll crossing, with technology that will determine the toll price based on how many people are crossing. If you cross during peak periods, you’ll pay more.

Orso said the agencies involved, including Caltrans, SANDAG, the General Services Administration and CBP, are starting to work on the technology at the San Ysidro port of entry. Right now, CBP determines its border wait time estimates based on how many cars or pedestrians are in an officer’s line of sight, said Orso. Finding a more accurate way to see how many people are crossing the border in real time can make the other crossings more efficient, too.

“It definitely will be a game-changer,” Orso said. “Definitely Otay Mesa is not the same as 10 years ago and in probably seven years, it will be an entirely different location.”

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