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U.S.-Mexico border braces for its own Carmageddon with big shutdown

U.S.-Mexico border braces for its own Carmageddon with big shutdown
Cars on the 5 Freeway approach the San Ysidro/Tijuana border gate. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at San Diego can often be a long process. But for 57 hours in September, all cars will be barred from entering Tijuana through San Ysidro.

Lasting from 3 a.m. on Sept. 23 until noon on Sept. 25, the closure is part of a plan by the U.S. General Services Administration to realign a portion of Interstate 5. The operation launches the third and final phase of the $741-million expansion of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

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The closure will affect tens of thousands of drivers — students, commuters, shoppers and others who regularly travel between San Ysidro and Tijuana, passing through the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere.

Authorities are comparing the operation to Carmageddon, when a large swath of the busy 405 Freeway in Los Angeles was shut down for a weekend in 2011 for a highway expansion project.

In this case, the partial closure of the 5 Freeway at San Ysidro will cause all vehicle traffic crossing into Mexico during that period to be rerouted to Otay Mesa, where Mexico has only five inspection lanes.

"If you have to cross that weekend, plan on delays," said Anthony Kleppe, a senior asset manager with the General Services Administration.

At a forum hosted Monday by the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and the South County Economic Development Council, Kleppe announced key dates for the massive project, which entails re-building the southernmost stretch of the 5 Freeway as it leads into Tijuana's El Chaparral Port of Entry.

The project is scheduled for completion in June 2019, Kleppe told a crowd of several dozen residents, business owners and government officials from both sides of the border gathered at the Las Americas outlet mall in San Ysidro.

The aim is to double the number of southbound lanes that feed into El Chaparral from five to 10. It will also involve adding eight more northbound inspection lanes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, bringing the total to 33. In addition, plans call for southbound vehicle inspection booths to be operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors, and a secondary inspection area.

During the construction period, the northbound flow of vehicular traffic will not be affected, Kleppe said. Nor will the pedestrian crossings in both directions.

The 57-hour closure of the southbound vehicle lanes is necessary for the safe removal of a large steel and canvas canopy that currently covers a portion of the southbound car lanes, according to the General Services Administration. During that time, workers will also remove concrete crash barriers, and install infrastructure and temporary paving and striping.

"We start with a bang," Kleppe said.

Following the closure, southbound lanes will be reduced from five to three for a two-month period. After that, the plan calls for adding a fourth lane before Thanksgiving, and softening the current sharp 110-degree turn toward El Chaparral to 90 degrees. "It has a better curve, even though there are fewer lanes," Kleppe said. The General Services Administration expects that as a result of the gentler curve, the flow of traffic will not change significantly from what it is today, despite the reduction in lanes.

Monday's presentation was seen as the launching of an effort to get out the word about the closure and lane reductions. "As the message continues to go out, people are going to be able to plan their trips better," said Efrain Ibarra, assistant director of the South County Economic Development Council.

"We hope to turn this into a positive," said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, which fears that a drop in traffic could mean a loss of business.

Plans to hold a festival during the closure and promote pedestrian crossings "can make this an economic boost for us down here," Wells said.

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Dibble writes for the San Diego-Union Tribune.

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