SAN DIEGO — In the barren Southwest, a good portion of the 1,900-mile United States-Mexico border is being fortified with walls, electronic surveillance, and trenches.
But private investors on both sides of the border are taking a different tack, building a bridge to Tijuana International Airport with the expectation of turning it into a low-cost alternative to San Diego’s boxed-in, one-runway airport.
Next year, if all goes according to plan, air travelers will be able to park their cars in the United States and walk across an enclosed 325-foot passageway to Tijuana International.
The project would make Tijuana International a rare airport that lets passengers land in one country and leave in another. Two airports along the Swiss-French border allow that, and a shuttle runs passengers with connecting flights between airports in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, across the border in China.
The effort, led by Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell, promises to help fulfill one of the early dreams of the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement: problem-free travel between Mexico and the United States. Every year, 2.4 million travelers from the States use the Tijuana airport, even if it means waiting for hours at the border. They provide the airport with nearly 60 percent of its traffic.
It is worth the trouble for those people because fares in Tijuana are substantially lower — up to 50 percent less to fly throughout Mexico — than at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.
Gilberto Rodriguez of Riverside, Calif., knows the routine well. On a recent morning, he wheeled bags the size of small refrigerators along a pathway toward the Mexican border with his wife, Esperanza, as his two daughters scrambled to keep up. Once past the border, he would take a $12 cab ride to Tijuana International.
Rodriguez figured he had saved $1,000 on their tickets.
With so many travelers already using Tijuana, the project has gained broad support locally. But border initiatives can move slowly. There is frustration here, for instance, that while Mexico widened the San Ysidro crossing — the nation’s busiest — to 34 lanes in 2012, financing for expansion on the US side has been hung up in Congress.
“Local politicians understand the dynamics of the border,” said David Alvarez, a San Diego councilman. He noted an estimated 75,000 people cross the border daily in San Diego.
In 2007, Equity Group Investments, led by Zell, formed a partnership with a pair of Mexican investment companies with ties to Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, a public-private partnership that operates 12 airports in Mexico, including Tijuana. A year later, the company, Otay-Tijuana Venture, bought vacant land on the US side for $34 million.
Developers cleared the largest hurdle in 2010 by securing State Department approval. Construction has been underway since July on the Mexican side but work has yet to begin on the US side.
The project’s cost is about $75 million on the US side, the developers say, and $15 million on the Mexican side. Costs on the US side include structures for processing, offices, and parking.
Developers have been negotiating for several months with US Customs and Border Protection, which will operate the checkpoints, and waiting to obtain building permits from the City of San Diego. Federal and local officials said final approval is expected soon.
“This makes sense on a lot of levels,” said Chandler Martin, the director of trade, border, and community programs at the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego. “All that time spent waiting to cross is business forgone. If the border works efficiently, it helps both sides.”