TIJUANA, Mexico — The Flores family's frequent trips to visit family in Mexico begin with a two-hour drive from their suburban Los Angeles home to San Diego, followed by a quick jaunt across the border to the Tijuana airport for the flight to Guadalajara.
Getting there is breeze, but the trip home can take twice as much time due to long lines of cars waiting to cross back onto U.S. soil.
"It's a waste of time, but we save money by flying out of here," Noel Flores of Rosemead said as he waited with his parents for a flight out of A.L. Rodriguez International Airport.
A shorter trip could be just steps away if a group of Mexican and American investors, including real estate mogul Sam Zell, is able to build a pedestrian bridge connecting ground transportation on the American side of the border to the Tijuana airport.
Supporters of the plan believe it will help relieve traffic at two nearby border crossings, maximize use of the Tijuana airport, and steer Southern Californians away from other international airports in the region.
The $78 million project calls for a two-story building and parking lot in Otay Mesa, an industrial district on the southernmost end of San Diego, where passengers can park their cars or get dropped off, pick up their boarding passes inside a lobby before going through U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints. From there, they can pay a fee to walk across the 525-foot bridge and reach the Tijuana airport where they can show their passports to Mexican immigration officers before proceeding to security check-ins and boarding.
"The main reason this makes sense is that it's a quick, convenient and secure way to cross the border," said Greg Rose, who is overseeing the project for Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC.
The investors conducted a market study that projects that by 2012, when they hope to complete construction of the facility, about 2 million passengers – half of the total who'll use the airport – would be crossing the border.
That's a drop in the bucket compared to the 65 million crossings from Mexico to California in 2009, the latest government statistics available. Nonetheless, backers of the cross-border project said the numbers illustrate a booming economic zone where people cross the border daily to do business.
Over the years, authorities worry that bottlenecks at the crossings are stifling growth. At the San Ysidro port of entry, the nation's busiest border crossing that's a few miles from the airport, waiting time to enter California can last as long as two hours. A study by the San Diego Association of Governments found in 2007 that border crossing delays cost about $3 billion in economic activity for the border region.
"The border is an opportunity and an inconvenience," said Cindy Gompper Graves, executive director of the South County Economic Development Council, a nonprofit that has been promoting better use of the Tijuana airport. "It offers unique opportunities for companies doing business in two different countries with just a short drive. It's an inconvenience because there is a secured border that you have to wade across."
She said the cross-border facility would treat the San Diego-Tijuana region as one economic entity and help facilitate business developments on both sides of the fence.
The idea for a bi-national airport began decades ago as local officials struggled to find a solution to overcrowded conditions at San Diego International Airport, a single-runway facility bounded by a harbor, hillside neighborhoods and the downtown area. The physical constraints, along with a strict departure curfew, have limited long-distance flights, particularly to Asia. As a result, many San Diego County residents drive or take the 40-minute, 120-mile flight to Los Angeles International Airport to connect to international flights.
Through the years, ideas to build airports offshore in the Pacific or to convert a military base into a commercial airport never took off. The proposal for TwinPorts, which called for building an airport in Otay Mesa that would share the runway and air traffic control tower with Tijuana's airport, failed because of concerns over security, noise, traffic and pollution.
Recognizing the need to address future air travel demand, the San Diego Regional Airport Authority is evaluating several scenarios. The authority recently published a report that projects that from now until 2030, the number of plane boardings in Southern California airports will jump from 48 to 80 million passengers. The report estimates that Tijuana's airport will see the largest percentage increase of passenger boardings from 1.6 to 5.6 million.
The investors, meanwhile, see an opportunity to pull international travelers from LAX to the Tijuana airport, which offers low-cost flights to Mexican destinations as well as Aeromexico flights to Shanghai and Tokyo.
Aeromexico, along with three low-cost Mexican carriers, offer daily flights to at least six Mexican destinations from the Tijuana airport.
Flores said his family could save a lot of hassle by flying to Mexico from LAX, but tickets from the region's largest airport to Guadalajara could cost twice as much.
"We fly two, three times a year, so that adds up," he said, adding that a one-way ticket from Tijuana to Guadalajara only cost them $175.
An aviation consultant said the project's success will depend on the fee for crossing the bridge, which the investors said has not been determined. "They can't charge an outrageous amount for crossing the bridge," Jack Keady said. "Otherwise the airfares out of Tijuana might not be that much lower than San Diego."
To stay competitive, the San Diego airport is undergoing a $1 billion makeover to add terminal gates, roadways and lobby space. Meanwhile Rodriguez airport is undergoing a $30 million renovation to expand and modernize its check-in, baggage and terminal areas, with construction expected to wrap up by the end of the year, said airport director Guillermo Villalba Moralez.
Moralez said airport operators decided to upgrade the airport before the cross-border project came along, but they welcomed the potential for more passengers if the bridge gets built. Last August, the U.S. State Department granted a presidential permit to build the bridge after finding that it would not cause any significant environmental impact. The project must receive a few more approvals by U.S. and Mexican authorities before construction can begin.
In the meantime, the CBP said it was cooperating with the private developers, but it declined to comment further because the project was still in the planning stages. To ensure security, current plans call for dividing the bridge into two corridors to separate northbound and southbound passengers.
A San Diego County man who created the Website tijuanaairportguide.com said those features would help reassure Americans who don't feel comfortable crossing the border to get on a plane.
Bill Livingston of Carlsbad said the experience could be intimidating for first-timers, so the traveling salesman posted a video providing step-by-step instruction for crossing the border. It has been viewed more than 17,500 times.
"Southern Californians should take advantage of the hospitality and competitive airline prices offered by our friends right across the border," Livingston said. "I find the airport to be very flier friendly. It might as well be San Diego's other airport."