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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New changes at the Calexico border crossings coming in 2009

By Bob Ham

For the past three or four years, the City of Calexico and Imperial County have been busy lobbying the federal government to take drastic steps to shorten the wait times at the border crossings that are creating economic and environmental problems in both countries.

I recently met with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials in Calexico to discuss the progress of various measures that are expected to be implemented in the immediate future that are intended to shorten the wait times at the borders.

The first project is the “stacked booth” project. This project will be in operation in June 2009. Simply put, the CBP will set up two booths per inspection lane similar to the way Walmart stores set up their checkout stands. Using this approach, the CBP anticipates an ability to process 40 percent more vehicles for each lane that is converted to double stacking. There will be three lanes at the Calexico West port set up as stacked lanes under this initial test that should be operating by June.

Another operational change that is already being implemented requires all lanes at both Calexico East and Calexico West ports to be open and operating during all peak periods. This seems to be an obvious solution; however, it took several years to implement due to staffing shortages. One result of the massive lobbying effort on behalf of the county has been a massive recruiting and training program, as well as additional benefits for CBP employees who agree to be stationed in Calexico.

Another important initiative that came about as a suggestion from our citizen’s committee is to reroute traffic at the Calexico East port to allow vehicle traffic to use the cargo facility’s inspection lanes at times when the cargo facility is closed. This is particularly important for travelers who visit San Felipe on weekends and return on Sundays. Cargo facilities are closed on weekends, so there will be four additional lanes available for passenger traffic at those times. The CBP has already completed their preparations for this changeover, and are now awaiting the Mexican transportation officials to complete the changes they need to make to enable vehicles to cross over to the cargo ports.

In November, the CBP convinced the cross-border bus companies to reroute their traffic to the less crowded Calexico East port. Calexico West is now able to process much higher amounts of vehicle traffic on the right lane that had previously been tied up as bus passengers were processed in that lane. The East port’s pedestrian area is much better equipped to handle this kind of inspection, and the change is already seeing an improved flow of traffic and shorter lines at both crossings.

Early in 2009, CBP expects to be able to add a SENTRI lane for pedestrian crossers at the Calexico West port of entry. One of the concerns that originally led to the active engagement of Calexico City officials in the effort to shorten these lines was when they noticed the growing length of the pedestrian lines that included many elderly people who cross from Mexicali to obtain medical services in the U.S. and the school children who attend the several private schools in Calexico. During late August and September when the Imperial Valley still experiences triple-digit temperatures, Calexicans were outraged to see these school children and elderly crossers subjected to wait times in the pedestrian lines that were in excess of one hour when the temperature had already reached the 100 degree mark. CBP responded by ensuring that anytime there was a backup that all lanes were staffed, later they added a lane for daily school crossers, and we are thrilled that they are now about to add a lane for SENTRI approved crossers that will shorten the processing time for many daily crossers; thus shortening the total wait time for all pedestrian crossers.

Many of us who have had SENTRI passes for some time have started to complain that even this program is now beginning to see lines in excess of 20 minutes and sometimes as long as one hour. Well, the good news is that CBP expects to be able to open a second SENTRI lane in the Calexico West port early in 2009 and are hopeful that they will be able to work with Mexico on a way to create a lane to access a new SENTRI lane at the East port of entry later in 2009.

Crossers at the Calexico East port most likely noticed some construction at that port. This project is part of a larger project known as the Western Hemisphere Initiative. Radio Frequency Identification Document (RFID) readers were installed at each lane and went into operation during December 2008. These readers are similar to the ones already used at the SENTRI lanes where documents like the SENTRI cards, the new passports, and new border-crossing visas that are issued to Mexican nationals can be scanned using this high-tech equipment to decrease the amount of time an officer needs to inspect persons attempting to cross the border.

Besides being able to more quickly process all of the traffic at the border crossings, this new RFID equipment will enable the CBP to increase the number of SENTRI lanes available during peak periods so the SENTRI program will always be able to deliver on the promise to keep border wait times to a minimum for those who take the time to sign up for this “trusted traveler” program. The equipment will be installed at the Calexico West port by the first quarter of 2009.

There are also other major construction plans for both ports. As early as 2010 we can look forward to a doubling of the number of inspection lanes available at Calexico West.

Bob Ham is a resident of Campo Las Arenas in San Felipe, where he has had a home since 1992 (he previously had another home in town since 1987). Bob is the Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the County of Imperial and also serves as the Executive Director of the Imperial County Association of Governments, which is the transportation planning agency for the county and the liaison with the municipality of Mexicali and Baja California State for coordinating transportation issues including working on improving traffic flow to and through the ports of entry.