A wine-tasting trip, a medical appointment, even a school or work obligation can mean hours of frustrating waits at the international border that separates Tijuana from San Diego. Could new cross-border transportation options such as a ferry service and a cross-border trolley connection cut wait times and encourage more cross-border travel?

Mexican authorities are championing both concepts as they explore innovative ways to ease the traffic gridlock that stifles the binational region’s potential, costing billions of dollars annually in revenue. “The governor has issued instructions that we do everything possible from our end to make these ideas a reality,” Kurt Honold, Baja California’s Secretary of Economy and Innovation.

I spoke with Honold briefly last week, as he was driving to Los Angeles to meet with Mexico Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier.  Honold, a longtime business leader and former Tijuana interim mayor, has a lot on his plate these days, and much of his attention has been focused on projects that would streamline traffic at and across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Honold and other champions of the Cali Baja Mega-Region have long envisioned a seamless border that is both secure and efficient. Where crossing the border to shop, eat, study, work or visit a doctor would be like driving to the other side of town. But many cross-border commuters and visitors say this is not their reality as they face hours inching forward in the northbound borderline.

There’s limited U.S. government funding to build new crossings and staff them—so the solution has been coming up with alternative approaches. U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar was at the border Monday and got an update on Otay Mesa East, an innovative port of entry planned jointly by the U.S. and Mexican governments and financed through tolls—like a highway.

With many agencies in two countries involved at every step, this is no overnight project. I first reported on the proposal nine years ago — and now authorities say they expect it to be completed by the end of 2024.

On Thursday, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is expected in Tijuana and plans to talk about progress on a project for a 6.8-mile elevated highway just south of the U.S. border financed through a federal customs fund. It would link Tijuana's A.L. Rodriguez International Airport with Playas de Tijuana, connecting drivers to the Tijuana-Rosarito-Ensenada toll road that runs through a major tourist corridor.

How do the Ensenada-San Diego ferry and cross-border trolley fit into this emerging picture of the cross-border border region? And what are the odds that they could happen? Cross-border projects are complex, involving different agencies and levels of government. Moving forward would depend on both U.S. and Mexican government permits and the willingness of private investors to step up.

For all the challenges, Honold said Gov. Marina Avila’s administration is determined to push forward. “We’ve got to find alternative ways of crossing, especially for people who work, who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego,” he said.

The proposal to create a cross-border trolley connecting Tijuana and San Ysidro is part of the planned  “inter-urban train” project planned in Baja California that would offer passenger service along existing railroad tracks in Tijuana and Tecate. The vision is that the train could be connected to the San Diego trolley through a pedestrian tunnel.

Mexico’s federal government has offered initial support, Honold said. “We already have authorization from [Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation] to put a terminal,” at the border south of San Ysidro.

The Ensenada-San Diego ferry would allow cross-border travelers to avoid the vehicular ports of entry altogether. Eventually, it could include stops in Rosarito Beach and Playas de Tijuana, Honold said.

“The tourism sector is supporting it 100 percent,” said Victor Celis, an Ensenada hotelier and president of Proturismo Ensenada. Mexico’s Navy Secretariat is closely involved, and a market study has shown backing for the idea, Celis said. “It’s not an easy project, it requires money, it requires support in both countries.”

A private investor abandoned a similar project two decades ago, Celis told me, because “there was a lack of promotion, a lack of support.”

The Port of San Diego is aware of the current ferry proposal. “It’s very conceptual and preliminary at this time,” said public information officer Brianne Mundy Page. “It’s our understanding that Port of Ensenada staff are gathering information and…will need to conduct and complete various studies of their own before bringing a formal proposal forward.”

For all the hurdles the projects still face, “it is definitely worth it to look at other ways we could help our community to cross the border,” said Kenia Zamarripa, executive director of international business affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

These ideas may seem like a long shot, Zamarripa said. But for years, so was a proposal to create a toll crossing for ticketed airline passengers between Tijuana and San Diego, known as the Cross Border Xpress, or CBX, she added. “Now, CBX is one of our region’s proudest success stories highlighting what San Diego and Baja can accomplish together.”

Rosarito Beach Desalination Plant

It’s a project that was championed by one governor, then canceled by his successor. Never built, it could return to haunt Baja California’s new gubernatorial administration.

The Rosarito Beach Desalination Plant project was formally launched more than five years ago under Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, a member of Mexico’s National Action Party. In August 2016,  his government signed a public-private-partnership with Cayman Islands-based Consolidated Water Coöperatief, U.A., to build and operate a desalination plant in Rosarito Beach. At full buildout, the plant would have converted 100 million gallons of seawater daily—the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Four years ago, I attended a crowded “groundbreaking” ceremony staged in a giant tent by the site of the planned plant on the Pacific Ocean—but there was no sign of any construction taking place.

Then 18 months ago, Vega’s successor, Jaime Bonilla, a member of Mexico’s ruling Morena party,  canceled the contract, saying it was poorly written and the company’s proposal was not financially sound.

Consolidated Water denies Bonilla’s assertions, and announced on Thursday in a company statement that it is seeking more than $51 million from “the Mexican government” — as reimbursement for the company’s investment in the project.

By now, Bonilla is out of office—and Marina del Pilar Avila, also a Morena member, is now the governor. Consolidated announced that is pressing forward through a request for arbitration by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, part of the World Bank Group.

“We will continue to vigorously pursue all legal means to obtain compensation for the benefit of our shareholders, and believe referring this dispute to ICSID is the most effective way of doing so,” Rick McTaggart, CEO of Consolidated Water, said in the company statement.

Also Notable

Journalist killings: Three suspects arrested in the Jan. 23 shooting death of Tijuana journalist Lourdes Maldonado were paid $5000 apiece, and are linked to the Arellano Felix Cartel, reports the newsweekly Zeta. Authorities are still trying to identify the mastermind of the crime, and the motive, but Baja California attorney general Ricardo Carpio has said there has been no evidence connecting her killing with her work as a journalist. Authorities have not arrested suspects in the Jan. 17 slaying of crime photographer Margarito Martinez.

Migrant camp cleared:  Ending a year-long standoff, authorities in Tijuana evicted close to 400 migrants from a makeshift camp by the Pedwest entrance to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in a pre-dawn operation on Feb. 6.  The migrants were taken to shelters, and city officials reported that close to 130 had agreed to be sent back to their communities. (SDUT, WOLA, La Jornada)

Car-bound asylum seekers: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has deployed officers to stand at the international borderline at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to stop asylum seekers—many from Russia—who have been driving into the vehicle lanes and asking for asylum, the Union-Tribune reports.

Migrant deaths: With drowning deaths of migrants trying to cross the All-American Canal in Imperial County on the increase, KPBS News reports that advocates are calling for more safety buoys in the waterway that carries Colorado River water to southern California.

Arizona border: Migrants from Colombia and other countries that do not require a visa to enter Mexico have been flying to northern Mexico, and walking to the U.S. border to petition for asylum, the AP reports from outside Yuma, Arizona.

Narco-influencers: The Union-Tribune reports on the rise of social media “communicators” that report on drug-related violence in Mexico and bypass traditional journalism principles such as fairness, accuracy, and identifying sources.

Drugs and HIV: Drug tourism could be fueling a new HIV outbreak in Tijuana, according to a study by UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. (City News Service)

Police drones, ICYMI: Tijuana police have launched their own drone program, facing less public scrutiny than their counterparts in Chula Vista,  reports Planetcob.

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