California's newest airport terminal extends to Mexico - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

California's newest airport terminal extends to Mexico

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In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo taken in Tijuana, Mexico, vehicles pass under a walking bridge that connects the new Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego, right, to the Tijuana International Airport, left. In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo taken in Tijuana, Mexico, vehicles pass under a walking bridge that connects the new Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego, right, to the Tijuana International Airport, left.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, a security inspection station is seen at the Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego. In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, a security inspection station is seen at the Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo,Vincent Miller, chief operating officer of the Cross Border Xpress air terminal, poses for a photo in the security inspection station at the terminal in San Diego. In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo,Vincent Miller, chief operating officer of the Cross Border Xpress air terminal, poses for a photo in the security inspection station at the terminal in San Diego.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, Enrique Valle, chief executive officer of the Cross Border Xpress air terminal, along with Elizabeth Brown, the chief commercial officer of CBX, talks about the business plans for the terminal in San Diego. In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, Enrique Valle, chief executive officer of the Cross Border Xpress air terminal, along with Elizabeth Brown, the chief commercial officer of CBX, talks about the business plans for the terminal in San Diego.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, the walking bridge is shown at the Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego. In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 photo, the walking bridge is shown at the Cross Border Xpress air terminal in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the world's most fortified international divides. Starting Wednesday, it will also be one of the world's only boundaries with an airport straddling two countries.

An investor group that includes Chicago billionaire Sam Zell built a sleek terminal in San Diego with a bridge that crosses a razor-wire border fence to Tijuana's decades-old airport. Passengers pay $18 to walk a 390-foot overpass to Tijuana International Airport, a springboard to about 30 Mexican destinations.

The terminal is targeting the estimated 60 percent of Tijuana airport passengers who cross into the United States, about 2.6 million travelers last year. Now, they drive about 15 minutes to a congested land crossing, where they sometimes wait several hours to enter San Diego by car or on foot. The airport bridge is a five-minute walk to a U.S. border inspector.

"It seems so much easier, so liberating," said Daniela Calderon, who flies from Tijuana four times a year to visit family in the central Mexican city of Morelia and has a friend drive her across the border from Riverside, California.

The only other cross-border airport known to industry experts is in the European Union — between Basel, Switzerland, and France's Upper Rhine region — but it carries none of the political freight of San Diego and Tijuana. Mexicans who ran across the border illegally overwhelmed the Border Patrol until the mid-1990s, when new fences and additional agents heralded a massive surge in U.S. enforcement on the 1,954-mile line with Mexico.

Cross Border Xpress, one of the largest privately-operated U.S. air terminals, wouldn't have happened if Tijuana didn't build its airport a few steps from the international line in the 1950s or if it wasn't surrounded by undeveloped land in a barren, industrial part of San Diego.

"It's an amazing accident of geography," said Stanis Smith of Stantec Inc., the terminal's architect. "It could never happen again."

The terminal is one of the last works by the late Ricardo Legorreta, whose bold colors helped bring Mexican modernism to a world stage and attracted a strong following in the American Southwest. The stone exterior mixes purple stucco and red limestone that takes on a deep, inky hue when it rains. Stone gardens sprout agave and other desert plants.

Passengers enter a courtyard with a reflecting pool to an airy building with ticket counters and kiosks. High, white ceilings have large orange circles of recessed lighting. Sparse decorative touches are onyx, including high-hanging black slabs near ticket counters and white spheres atop the escalators.

Aesthetics are more dated in the Tijuana airport but passenger flow is the same. Ticketed passengers must carry luggage across a bridge with frosted glass windows to border inspectors in the receiving country and a wall in the middle to separate the two directions.

The idea isn't new — San Diego leaders proposed an airport with a runway on each side of the border in the early 1990s to replace the city's constrained Lindbergh Field — but it didn't gain traction until a Mexican couple invested in 2005 in a company that runs airports in Tijuana and 11 other Mexican cities.

Carlos Laviada, whose mother-in-law lived in San Diego, had experienced the hassles of crossing the border after flying to Tijuana for decades. The view of San Diego from Tijuana's control tower convinced him he had to act before the vacant land was developed.

"Oh, my God, it's right here," he recalls saying.

Laviada said Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico SAB's board deemed it too risky but allowed him, his wife and another company director to invest privately. Zell and another Mexican investor joined them.

The privately-held consortium, Otay-Tijuana Venture LLC, doesn't release financial projections but expects to make money on a duty-free shop, rental car companies, restaurants and other concessions. The $120 million terminal occupies less than half their 55-acre parcel, and the city of San Diego has approved a 340-room hotel, shopping center and gas station.

Parking costs $10 a day, which is competitive with lots near land crossings and Tijuana's airport.

The terminal fee will go largely to pay U.S. border inspector salaries, one of the nation's few privately-funded ports of entry.

Laviada, echoing views of airport officials on both sides of the border, doesn't consider Tijuana a threat to San Diego's airport because they share few routes. Both are primarily domestic airports, and Tijuana has shown no sign of expanding international destinations beyond Shanghai and Oakland, California.

Cross Border Xpress officials say they hope to capture half of Tijuana passengers bound for the U.S., which sounds realistic to nervous Tijuana airport taxi drivers who charge $13 for a ride to a land crossing. Nearly all cars in the Tijuana airport garage have California plates.

Passengers joke that they spend more time crossing the border than they do on the plane.

"No more driving around so much," Maria de Jesus Gonzalez said after arriving in Tijuana from a family visit to Guadalajara and waiting for her son to drive from Southern California. "This will be much more direct."

Questions and answers about cross-border airport

WILL THE CROSS-BORDER AIRPORT COMPETE WITH SAN DIEGO'S MAIN AIRPORT?

No, say airport officials on both sides of the border.

More than 99 percent of passengers at Tijuana International Airport — about 4.4 million last year — travel in Mexico. Destinations include Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta beach resorts, colonial cities Morelia and Zacatecas and business hubs like Guadalajara and Monterrey. Cross Border Xpress estimates that 60 percent of the airport's passengers cross the border to the U.S.

San Diego's Lindbergh Field, which is located about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, handled 18.7 million passengers last year and is primarily a domestic airport.

WHO WILL USE THE CROSS-BORDER AIRPORT?

Cross Border Xpress, which has capacity for 2.5 million passengers a year, will initially target the Tijuana airport's existing users. They include Mexican-Americans who visit family, business travelers with Mexican suppliers and customers and American tourists.

Airport operators say Tijuana could eventually be used more as a springboard to Asia; it currently has flights to Shanghai. They express interest in running shuttle buses to San Diego Lindbergh's Field to connect to U.S. destinations.

WHAT ELSE IS UNUSUAL?

Nearly all of the roughly 3,330 airports in the U.S. are publicly-owned and operated. Cross Border Xpress will be privately owned and operated.

Only 10 airports pursued privatization under a Federal Aviation Administration effort launched in the 1990s — Chicago Midway International being the largest — and only two went through with it. They were Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York.

The Government Accountability Office found several reasons for lack of support last year: higher financing costs; lack of state and local tax exemptions; time and other costs.

Many countries around the world, including Mexico in the late 1990s, have privatized airports to pay for upgrades and to raise money for other projects.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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