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Despite security challenges, truck traffic increases at Calexico POE's

March 15, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — When Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge spoke at the Mexican embassy earlier this month, he stressed the importance of maintaining a U.S.-Mexico border that facilitates commercial flow between the two countries, even with the security challenges posed by Sept. 11.

Federal data from the U.S. Department of Transportation suggests the ports of entry in Calexico may have succeeded in doing that, at least as measured by the increasing cross-border truck traffic.

But industry experts say the traffic growth should be attributed to the growth of Mexicali, the city on the Mexican side of the border.

Monthly data show that truck traffic rebounded after Sept. 11 more quickly at Calexico than it did at San Diego's Otay Mesa, opposite Tijuana, and than it did at other California crossing points.

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In addition, while truck traffic declined nationwide after Sept. 11, it grew 10 percent at Calexico in 2001 from 2000 levels, compared with growth of 3 percent at Otay Mesa and a decrease of half a percent in the average at all U.S.-Mexico crossings.

And finally, since Calexico East opened in 1996, the number of trucks passing through both Calexico crossings rose 79 percent to 306,715 trucks in 2001 from 170,526. This compares with a rise of 33 percent at Otay Mesa, 36 percent at all California crossing points together and 32 percent at all U.S.-Mexico border stations.

‘‘Everything from television sets to tomatoes comes through the ports,'' said Larry Hawkins, an officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in California.

Both types of products have their high season late in the year, which could explain Calexico's rapid recovery but not why it recovered quicker than Otay Mesa. Regional U.S. Customs spokesman Vicente Bond said all California crossings have remained in the same heightened state of alert since Sept. 11, with the same sustained intensive examination of people and cargo. But Calexico may have an advantage over its neighboring ports.

‘‘I have heard it takes much longer to get through Otay Mesa,'' said Bill Polkinhorn, a customs broker and freight mover based in Calexico.

Customs brokers help companies handle paperwork required by U.S. Customs.

The Otay Mesa port neighbors crowded and developed Tijuana and provides a direct highway route to the major border cities of San Diego and Los Angeles. In December 2001, Tijuana had 758 maquiladoras compared with 193 in Mexicali, according to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information.

Trucks from Tijuana's many maquiladores line up as early as 4 or 5 a.m. and ‘‘there's still a very good chance you're not going to make it across,'' said Gabriela Quiroz, general manager at Calexico Freight Lines.

Such long days, she said, raise the prices charged by drivers to haul freight across, typically $40 at Calexico versus $250 at Otay Mesa.

‘‘I hate Tijuana because of the time. Otay Mesa is just one big headache," she said. "It takes all day to cross two trailers. Here you can cross five to seven."

Bond said much of the waiting time truckers complain about at Otay Mesa and other ports has nothing to do with U.S. Customs but is lost on the Mexican side.

"A driver doesn't care whether (he is) dealing with Mexican or U.S. customs, so they tend to lump us all together, even though we're totally separate," Bond said.

Still, Polkinhorn said he found it easier to drive through Calexico East because it's a more modern and efficient facility than others in California.

It is situated on 84 acres and has three gates for the 1,100 trucks that pass through it daily during the busy season, compared with the 26-acre Otay Mesa with five gates for 3,000 trucks daily.

At Calexico, Polkinhorn said, a typical truck can pass through two to three times per day because the docks are approachable from all sides, allowing multiple inspection teams to work at once.

"Trucks don't have to wait, there's not so much jockeying around," he said.

But Quiroz said she doubts more truckers are bypassing Otay Mesa and other California crossing points and heading for Calexico. People are willing to wait at Otay Mesa, she said, where the city of San Diego is less than an hour away and Los Angeles is about two hours away.

"Here the border city is a little desert town with only 50,000 people," Quiroz said.

For the real reason for the growth, Qurioz said, "just look across the border. Maquiladoras are popping up everywhere in Mexicali. In Tijuana, there's no more room."

Since 1996, companies such as Sony, Mitsubishi and Thompson Electronics have built plants in Mexicali, some with several thousand employees. While such businesses started slowly, Polkinhorn said, now the factories are producing and trucking their products across the border at Calexico.

While Tijuana has more factories, since 1994 the number grew 39 percent at Tijuana and 50 percent at Mexicali, according to Mexican census data. Such growth has a large impact on Calexico's border crossing data because Mexicali's production level started at a smaller level than Tijuana's. Calexico may finally have earned its self-proclaimed title, "the gateway to Mexico" with help from Mexicali.

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