TIJUANA— When I arrived in Tijuana last week for the Fusion and Univision RiseUp As One border concert, I anticipated a solid two-hour wait to cross the border into San Diego.
I have memories of crossing the border on foot at the San Ysidro checkpoint (the busiest in the world) and at nearby Otay Mesa (which isn't much better) to visit my then-girlfriend, who lived in San Diego. Oh, the things we do for love.
It was cheaper to fly to Tijuana then cross into San Diego, but the wait times at the border were usually an hour-plus and the CBP officials, tired and overworked, would often make snarky comments and act like bouncers at a club.
But things were different this time, thanks to a $16 pass I purchased at the Tijuana airport that let me use the Cross Border Xpress (CBX), an enclosed pedestrian skywalk available to people with an airplane ticket.
The state-of-the-art pedestrian bridge, complete with air-conditioning, a duty free shop and friendlier immigration agents, connects the airport in Tijuana to San Diego. It makes the two cities seem closer than ever.
The skywalk looks like something conceived in the early days of the European Union, when there was a push for open borders. The sleek and inviting architecture feels out of place for the U.S.-Mexico border, especially at a time where there are loud calls for walls and razor wire.
“In recent years there’s been many conversations on how to facilitate travel for people flying in and out of the San Diego-Tijuana border region,” Elizabeth Brown, the Chief Commercial Officer for CBX, told me. “At one point there was even a discussion on having a runway connecting airport terminals.”
In the end, the bridge idea won. Brown says the CBX project came together in 2007, when a group of investors from the Mexican airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico (GAP) purchased 55 acres of undeveloped land on the U.S. side adjacent to the Tijuana airport and started lobbying local and federal governments to build a bridge.
They received presidential permits from both governments in 2010, and four years later began construction with a private investment of $120 million (75% of which came from Mexican investors, and 25% from backers in the U.S.). Construction took a little over a year, and the CBX border crossing opened in December 2015.
It wasn't an easy task. Since the project was built on an international border, construction workers had to pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) every time they stepped into U.S. soil. To further complicate things, the two companies working on the project on each side of the border used different measurements systems (Standard and Metric). It meant CBX's bicultural engineers also had to work as interpreters between the two crews.
“Our designs had to be translated into Spanish, the measurement system had to be changed and even the way the specifications were communicated were different,” Brown told me. “Problems were solved through good old communication – two engineers meeting at the fence, one in Mexico and one in the U.S."
Some sections of the project were built in Tijuana, others were constructed in San Diego. The governments of Mexico and the U.S. then allowed workers to gather in the middle to build the connecting section.
“The only time when both construction teams were able to meet was when the bridge was complete and the doors were opened for a special occasion so both construction teams could have lunch together – yet staying on their own side of the border,” she said.
The bridge, which is 390 feet long and takes about 10 minutes to cross on foot, operates like any other border checkpoint.
CBX has a contractual relationship with the CBP and Brown says the project followed all agency requirements and specifications for the structure.
Brown says CBX expects to break even on its operating costs this year, after raising its fees from $12 to $16 in July. She says some 1.3 million passengers (between 4,000-5,000 per day) have used CBX this year. That represents about 24% of all passengers flying into Tijuana.
“There’s a big increase during major holidays and special events,” she says. “Especially when the Mexican National Soccer Team is playing in California.”
But not everyone loves it. Some Tijuana residents I talked to last week refer to CBX as the “rich people bridge” and complained that no such similar structure is available to the public. CBX says that due to security concerns, there are no plans to allow people without a plane ticket to use the bridge.
“Aviation security is part of the reason why CBP supports this project. It’s a very secure crossing,” she said.
Brown claims she’s not aware of any incidents involving contraband smuggled across the CBX crossing. Fusion reached out to CBP in San Diego for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
But Brown says the bridge is having a greater economic impact and stimulating economies on both sides of the border by facilitating easier crossings for tourists and business travelers. More U.S. travelers are able to cross over to Tijuana to buy cheaper airline tickets to over 30 destinations in Mexico, while many Mexicans arriving at the Tijuana airport can cross into the U.S. without the customary wait times. Part of the project has been to push for the expansion of the Tijuana airport and encourage airlines to add more flights in and out of Tijuana.
But more importantly, CBX shows that there are great infrastructure alternatives to the dark, walled-off border dystopia preached by Donald Trump. There are ways to have a safe and secure border crossings without slowing the flow.
The CBX bridge would have been great back in the day when I had a girlfriend in San Diego. The project came a little too late to help our relationship, but I’m sure it will enable other cross-border relationships to bridge their love.