Car-Pool Lanes Get Off to Fast Start at Border Crossing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid much hoopla, U.S. and Mexican authorities launched car-pool lanes Monday for passenger vehicles transporting more than four people from Mexico into the United States through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the world's busiest border crossing.

The seven new car-pool lanes, identified with painted white diamonds in the roadway and reflecting signs above the designated customs booths, are aimed at reducing traffic and cutting down on tortuous vehicular delays, which now leave exasperated northbound motorists waiting in line for an hour or more.

The hope is that car-pooling will catch on, prompting some of the more than 40,000 drivers now passing each day through the gates to leave their vehicles home.

However, much of the daily traffic is composed of cross-border work commuters, students and others who say they will be hard-pressed to find car-pool partners or use public transportation.

Paradoxically, the most notable immediate effect of the new lanes was to constrict further the flow of traffic, leaving angry motorists in non-car-pool lanes honking their horns in a familiar symphony of frustration. Car-pool lanes, meanwhile, went comparatively unused, as relatively few vehicles qualified under the four-person limit.

Noting the bottleneck, authorities stressed that both governments were "flexible" about the car-pooling concept and would continually evaluate its progress to determine if some alterations are needed. One possible alternative would be to reduce the car-pool threshold to three occupants per vehicle, but officials said they would wait before taking such a step.

"We're watching this closely," said Rudy M. Camacho, district director for the U.S. Customs Service, adding that revisions will be implemented if needed.

In fact, Mexican traffic officers, noting that few four-person vehicles were on line, began directing those carrying three people into the car-pool lanes Monday morning, shortly after the inauguration ceremony ended at the port.

"They just told us to come right on through," said Paul Lass of Riverside County, as he pulled into the car-pool Customs booth, his car carrying himself and two passengers. "I think this is beautiful."

Also expressing gratification was Francisco Sanchez, a Mexican citizen whose family of four was among the first to cross on the car-pool lanes after the formal opening ceremony.

"This is a great idea," Sanchez said. "The waiting here can be terrible."

The car-pool lanes will be in effect Monday through Friday, officials said; inspectors will adjust the number of such lanes according to need. The lanes will be out of operation on Saturdays and Sundays, officials said, because too many vehicles carry four or more people on weekends.

During formal opening ceremonies, U.S. and Mexican officials called the car-pool concept a notable example of international cooperation.

"This is the kind of thing we can accomplish when we work together in a spirit of good will and cooperation," said Enrique Loaeza Tova, Mexican consul general in San Diego.

Motorists attempting to use the car-pool lanes with fewer than four aboard will be subject to citations and fines of $236, officials said. California Highway Patrol officers will enforce the sanctions. Tijuana police are helping to direct traffic but will not issue fines, Tijuana officials said. U.S. lawmen are observing a one-week grace period before issuing fines, officials said.

In the most recent fiscal year, more than 50 million people entered U.S. territory via San Ysidro, mostly in 13.3 million vehicles.

(By contrast, London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's major gateways, handles about 11 million entries per year, noted Clifton Rogers, deputy district director in San Diego for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.)

The car-pool lanes are being installed at a time when the overall number of lanes at San Ysidro will soon be reduced, from 24 to 20, as work crews begin the lengthy process of removing toxic asbestos from the port building above. The job, slated to begin in August, is expected to last 18 months. The shutdown is being timed to coincide with the opening of four new traffic lanes at the less-utilized Otay Mesa crossing, 8 miles to the east of the San Ysidro facility.

Meantime, government planners are looking at other ways to handle the ever-increasing border traffic. Customs and immigration personnel say they lack both staffing and the physical capacity to move the vehicles much more quickly--particularly since both agencies direct most of their resources at deterring the entry of unauthorized drugs and undocumented immigrants.

"Our effort in the drug war is paramount to anything we do," noted Camacho, the customs district chief, vowing that manpower would not be shifted from that role in a bid to improve traffic circulation..

Meanwhile, there have been discussions about building another port of entry in the San Ysidro area, either along the coast or at the the existing commercial port just west of the passenger facility.

But the coast plan, which would funnel traffic into the sensitive Tijuana River Valley, has run into strong environmental objections and seems unlikely to progress. And officials say plans to transform the commercial crossing at Virginia Street into a passenger vehicle port remain embryonic and could not be implemented for at least three years. Federal funds for such large-scale projects remain scarce.

Another much-debated idea is the imposition of border entry fees, which would be used to hire new border inspectors and build new ports. But such fees are strongly opposed in San Diego and other border communities where international commerce and travel provide an economic lifeline.

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