Improving our Border Infrastructure for a More Competitive Regional Economy
As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript; October 23, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Richard Florida, one of America’s leading scholars on modern economic development, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of “mega-regions” and their role in the future global economy. Rather than focus on nations, cities, or states, Florida counsels, the true unit of importance are mega-regions – collections of cities and suburbs which are closely economically integrated. He suggests that it isn’t China or India that our competitors but rather the mega-regions around Shanghia, Shenzhen, and Bangalore. At a time when the national, state, and local economies are under severe stress, competitiveness is the critical public policy concern.
Focusing on mega-regions means that San Diego must look south. Baja has a population of some 2.8 million and a regional economy estimated to be $22 billion. By the year 2030 the City of Tijuana’s population alone will be 3.4 million and, by 2040, exceed the population of San Diego County. In 2007 more than 1.1 million trucks crossed from Mexico into San Diego carrying over $18.5 billion worth of goods. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) estimates that 63% of northbound border crossers, or 30 million visitors a year, are legally coming across the border and into the United States to shop or do errands.
The importance of Baja and how it fits into the region’s long term prosperity is why the signing of SB 1486 earlier this month was so important. Authored by Senator Denise Ducheny SB 1486 will expedite the construction of a third border crossing in Eastern Otay Mesa and the completion of SR 11 – a modern state highway linking the new Port of Entry with the rest of the region’s freeway system. By permitting the use of tolls, bonds, and design-build contracts, SB 1486 will allow the project to be completed much sooner than if San Diego had to rely upon traditional financing and construction methods.
Completion of the third crossing and SR 11 can’t come soon enough. Wait times at the border routinely exceed 90 minutes. Lines in the SENTRI lanes, which are dedicated for pre-screened frequent border crossers, routinely are more than 30 minutes long. This gridlock at the border, SANDAG estimates, costs the mega region than $7 billion in lost economic activity and more than 51,000 jobs.
SB 1486 couldn’t have happened without the regional team working together. Mayor Jerry Sanders has spent considerable time focused on our ties to Baja and without his efforts to foster good relationships with other border leaders it is doubtful the legislation would have moved forward. SANDAG under its chairwoman Lori Holt-Pfiler and Executive Director Gary Gallegos have made cross border trade a centerpiece of the agency’s efforts to improve San Diegio’s economy. Councilmember Ben Hueso, whose district is home to both of San Diego’s existing ports of entry has made improving trade a top priority. Last, but by no means least, Senator Ducheny has for over two decades made improving the economic, environment, and social conditions along the border a top priority and her work in Sacramento was critical in moving the Otay East border crossing forward.
Now that the region has done its part, Washington needs to act. The next step is for the State Department to issue a Presidential Permit that will allow SANDAG and CALTRANS to begin precise planning. Washington also needs to do what it can to expedite improvements to the San Ysidro Border Crossing, which is severely overburdened by more than 36 million annual pedestrian and private vehicle crossings and where wait times routinely exceed 2 hours.
It is also important that we also look to our north. The opening of the first phase of the managed land project on Interstate 15 represents a critically important piece of infrastructure to the region. Now an equal amount of attention needs to be paid to Interstate 5, our main link to the Los Angeles Basin and its $810+ billion economy. The region from Santa Barbara to Baja, if a separate nation, would be the world’s 13th largest. Better mobility along the entire corridor and closer economic integration prepares the mega-region to better compete.
Succeeding in the coming 21st century requires that the region think beyond the narrow boundaries of the county. Our fate is tied, like it or not, to what goes on in Baja and in the greater Los Angeles Region. With the right kind of infrastructure investments, our region can compete and win.