SAN DIEGO — A rerouting of tens of thousands of vehicles a day began Thursday without a hitch at the busiest crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a major expansion that aims to keep lines manageable while allowing heightened inspections for drugs, weapons and other contraband.
The smooth sailing eased fears that the reconfigured lanes for Mexico-bound motorists would create epic traffic jams.
Mexican customs employees in yellow jackets waved motorists to empty inspection lanes Thursday. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who drove through an inspection booth Wednesday night, said the $76.4-million upgrade will mean shorter waits to enter Tijuana.
"It looks like we avoided the border's Carmageddon," said Kenn Morris, president of Crossborder Group Inc., a consulting firm that has been studying border wait times. He was referring to Los Angeles freeway closures that raised concerns of major traffic jams.
The new Mexico-bound lanes opened as the U.S. government is in the middle of its own $583 million expansion of the San Ysidro border crossing. A big part of the U.S. government's plans – redirecting Interstate 5 in California with a soft curve leading into Tijuana – has not been funded by Congress.
Instead of waiting for the U.S. government to finish realigning its freeway, Mexico decided on a stopgap solution, introducing a sharp right turn for motorists entering Tijuana. Motorists drive along the border for about 300 yards to reach new inspection booths.
"This time we finished a lot earlier than they did," said Calderon, who finishes his six-year term Dec. 1.
Some business leaders and government officials worried that the sharp turn in Mexico would create a bottleneck, but those fears have proven unfounded so far.
Mexican authorities say they allowed up to 21,600 vehicles a day to take the new route during trials that began Oct. 24, with waits of only 10 minutes during peak travel times. Up to 100 vehicles moved through 22 inspection lanes every minute, far more than the eight inspection lanes at the old crossing.
About 35,000 motorists go back and forth across the border at San Ysidro every day. U.S.-bound motorists grew accustomed to waiting two hours or more after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to more thorough inspections. Mexico-bound motorists wait much less, though both governments have stepped up efforts in recent years to search for smuggled weapons and cash.
The big test for the new lanes will come Friday afternoons, when motorists wait up to 45 minutes to enter Mexico, said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
Wells believes the Mexican government won't accept long delays. Some speculate that it will reopen the old route if the plan flops.
"Even if this doesn't work on day one, there's enough pressure on both sides of the border that they'll make it work," he said.