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Faster border crossing a priority

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to cut down on wait times at the border, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday that he and other governors are exploring the idea of public-private partnerships to construct vehicle toll lanes at entry points between the United States and Mexico.

Schwarzenegger raised the issue at the closing of the 26th annual Border Governors Conference, a three-day summit that drew four governors from the United States and six from Mexico. Among the problems the governors agreed to tackle next year was the reduction of border crossing times.

Currently, passenger vehicles can wait up to two hours to cross the border, and commercial vehicles can wait up to four. These delays, according to the Schwarzenegger administration, could discourage tourism and other business.

Schwarzenegger said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also attended the conference, signaled a willingness to examine partnerships with private companies to develop new points of entry. Revenue from tolls could be used to repay construction bonds.

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“Everyone agrees that we need to expand the pipe . . . which means that we can get more people across quicker, more efficiently,” Schwarzenegger said at a news conference at Universal Studios, where the conference took place.

The governor said there could be legal hurdles to involving private developers at crossing points and acknowledged that the idea might be controversial.

Schwarzenegger said the governors’ representatives would meet with federal officials soon to figure out how to create such partnerships without drawing criticism that “you’re selling off the border” or giving up control.

Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation, said the tolling system would be an extension of current lanes dedicated to passenger and commercial vehicles that have paid to pre-register so they can move through crossings faster.

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In an interview, Kempton said such toll lanes could be used at the planned Otay East crossing south of Chula Vista, which the state wants to build in collaboration with the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

The U.S. governors also agreed to urge federal lawmakers to approve proposals by the Bush administration to add almost 600 new customs agents, many of whom would be sent to the southwest border.

The governors’ other joint declarations included plans to fight illegal gun trafficking by allowing Mexican states to enter information into a firearms database kept by the U.S. government.

They agreed to seek state legislation in the U.S. and federal action in Mexico to cut down on shipments of pollution-causing scrap tires to Mexico.

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They said they would highlight the problem of human trafficking -- a subject that Maria Shriver, the governor’s wife, discussed at the conference.

The states also hope to draft a memorandum of understanding that would permit them to send help in the event of a natural disaster in the other country, such as the California wildfires.

“What you have is situations like in San Diego where actual fire engines tried to come across the border and they had to deal with immigration issues,” said Regina Evans, a deputy cabinet secretary to Schwarzenegger.

The governors’ conference was attended by 3,600 people. It was sponsored by General Electric, which owns Universal Studios, and more than 20 other private companies, including AOL, the University of Phoenix, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Anheuser-Busch.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com


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