COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | BEN HUESO

A new attitude toward our border with Mexico

In the next year the San Diego City Council and the Mayor will tackle a multitude of important issues in Otay Mesa. Each issue will potentially have far reaching impacts beyond the San Diego region. For the first time in 26 years, the Otay Mesa Community Plan will be updated; for the first time since the 1960s, Brown Field International Airport will be redeveloped; and, the long overdue and essential construction of State Route 905 will begin. The latter, however, is far from certain. What is certain, though, is that it is high time that San Diego focused on this vital border community.

In order to guarantee that these three factors are well supported financially I have proposed implementing, for the first time, the 8-year-old border development legislation: An Infrastructure Financing District (IFD). The Border Development Zone (BDZ), can help generate millions of much needed dollars to properly support Otay Mesa with critical infrastructure. And here is why region-wide support of this IFD and the thrilling new advances in Otay Mesa will be a benefit to San Diego residents and businesses alike.

Otay Mesa is a perfect location for businesses to take advantage of trade growth around the Pacific Rim and, of course, Mexico. Otay Mesa is the last bastion of undeveloped and underdeveloped land in the City of San Diego and it rests directly on the border with Tijuana. What I'm getting at here is this: Otay Mesa's time as a vital economic engine for the San Diego region is before us. Let us not miss it!

Unfortunately, Otay Mesa, which is twice the size of National City, continues to be neglected both for what it is and what it can be. We are learning that businesses situated along the border are very successful. The San Ysidro border area is home to the number one selling Kmart and the number two selling Wal-Mart in the entire country. Additionally, the Factory Outlet Center and the Las Americas Mall have demonstrated a cross-border regional appeal.

My point is San Diego should embrace and facilitate the increased purchasing power of our neighbors across the border. Instead, however, Congress is moving ahead to construct a $14 billion three-tiered border wall symbolically, if not effectively, dismissing our neighbors and the clear economic partnerships that do and can exist on the border. That is not to say that border security should not be one of our nation's top priorities. It should be, but we need a real security plan, not a symbolic multi-billion dollar wall on our border.

Moreover, as Congress steps backward in time and thought to further contemplate a border wall, Mexico is taking up Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" theory by working on a $7 billion transportation plan that would create three deep water ports at Punto Colonet and a rail line to bring goods from throughout the world into the United States. Mexico is finding ways to capitalize on our log-jammed ports and our government's inability to efficiently import oversees goods. This will no doubt be a financial boon to Mexico; and it surely could be for the United States and the San Diego region, too. However, San Diego will not be able to seize the potential windfall that Mexico's new infrastructure developments will likely produce unless San Diego decides to get serious and help build the necessary major infrastructure investments in Otay Mesa.

Such investments would assist in revitalizing Otay Mesa's imperative Brown Field Airport component. Until recently, this airport was a forgotten and neglected city asset. I say until lately, because in union with Mayor Sanders, we are working to create a reinvestment plan at Brown Field that would create a viable executive travel airport that would also help promote healthy and responsible development along the border. So, as the San Diego Regional Airport Authority begins to reexamine San Diego's urban airport system, it would be wise to utilize our only other international airport in a manner that respects its proximity to the border and all the possibilities that symbolizes.

But, what kind of infrastructure investments do I mean? For starters, Otay Mesa will remain at a standstill if the regionally and nationally critical State Route 905 is not fully funded immediately. The effects of 1994's NAFTA agreement have dramatically increased traffic on the 905. NAFTA, of course, is a positive development, but Otay Mesa's infrastructure has not matched the boon to cross border business.

This route, which is now the most dangerous road in San Diego, cuts clear across the mesa, but is loaded with tiny jalopies, semi-trucks laden with critical goods destined for locations scattered throughout the country, and even children walking to school. As one of the most heavily used port-of-entries in the nation there is no excuse for the poor condition of this road and the hold-up on its construction. Our federal, state and local governments must make funding I-905 an immediate priority. The region cannot afford another year of stalling.

What can we do to help resolve the infrastructure quagmire in Otay Mesa? I am working on updating the community plan, the first one since 1982. I am taking the initial steps toward cleaning up Brown Field as well, but there's more to be done. In 1999, the California legislature passed a bill that designated a three-mile band along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Arizona Border called the Border Development Zone (BDZ). With the exception of a small area in Calexico, this tool has gone largely ignored and unrealized to the detriment of Otay Mesa and San Diego.

Functioning much like a redevelopment area, the BDZ would designate new taxes realized by new development to be reinvested in the area to fund infrastructure: roads, bridges, libraries, parks, open-space preservation, or anything deemed critical to the success of commerce along the border. This program would help make the border region one of the most attractive areas to invest for the Biotech, Information Technology Industries, and other industries that are beneficial to our region. No other area in the state would possess such geographic and infrastructure qualities, giving our city the edge in attracting these important industries.

But in order to realize the potential that exists in Otay Mesa we need to form a new attitude toward our border with Mexico. A financing tool, a new freeway, a refreshed community plan update and an improved international airport will all serve as the legs Otay Mesa needs to stand up and be respected as San Diego's new and most important business and residential frontier.


Hueso is a San Diego City Councilman.

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