As the son of Mexican immigrants, Ruben Barrales realizes his heritage helps him do his job and break down barriers.
The president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce said he’s “fortunate” he can speak Spanish, because it helps him build relationships with Mexico that result in job creation and business investment opportunities.
“We are constantly working with our counterparts, elected officials and leaders,” said Barrales, whose chamber is nearly 3,000 members strong.
His team makes a yearly trek to Mexico City to meet with Mexican officials and tackle issues related to trade, tourism and border infrastructure. The next trip is scheduled for the spring, when he will get to meet with the members of the new presidential administration.
Barrales’ daily activities include working with partners south of the border to figure out ways to work together and boost each others’ economies. Tijuana and San Diego have a combined 250,000 manufacturing jobs.
“Manufacturing in Tijuana is becoming more sophisticated in sectors like electronics and aeronautics,” he said.
Tijuana is busy in its factories every day, making everything from TVs to telecommunications equipment for airports and astronauts, to heart pacemakers. But physically transporting that plethora of goods is a problem that Barrales is working to solve.
He visited Washington, D.C. in September to push for funding to finish a border crossing project that will open up new pathways for trade and tourism between San Diego and Mexico.
The world’s busiest land border crossing sits where Interstate 5 crosses into Mexico at Tijuana, at San Ysidro. Just six miles east sits the popular cargo and commercial crossing at Otay Mesa, which sees 3,000 trucks passing through every day in both directions.
But holdups and long delays plague the border crossings, keeping people and goods from entering the United States.
Nearly 340,000 people travel every day through the San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate border crossings linking California and Mexico’s Baja California, according to a 2005 study by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and Caltrans, but more than eight million trips across the border are lost because travelers are unwilling to fight congestion and an average wait time of 45 minutes.
That equates to a loss of nearly $1.3 billion in potential revenues, mostly in the retail sector.
“If we can improve the efficiency of the border we can create more economic development and jobs,” Barrales said.
The U.S. federal government approved the expansion of the San Ysidro Port of Entry in three phases. So far, it has funded and completed the first phase of construction.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government has almost completed the entire renovation of El Chaparral, the facility on its side of the border crossing. That means San Diego needs to speed up its side of the deal.
“In one or two months, we will have a situation where the constraint will be on the U.S. side, which will unfortunately create potentially more congestion at the border until the next two phases are complete,” Barrales said.
As a result, his primary focus right now is securing the federal government’s commitment to expand the crossings, and the annual D.C. trip was designed to rally for that funding.
He brought a 100-person entourage of supporters from both sides of the border, including Mayor Jerry Sanders, Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante, the majority of the San Diego City Council and Jim Janney, mayor of Imperial Beach. The agenda included meeting with elected officials and members of Congress from San Diego.
They also got face time with the Department of Transportation, Customs and Border Protection, the White House and other agencies that have jurisdiction or oversight over border crossings.
“We made it very clear that improvements to our existing border crossings are a priority,” he said. ”I feel that we are going to see quite a few results related to the expansion of border crossings.”
There are also plans to plunk two more border crossings in the San Diego region. One would sit across from the Tijuana International Airport to open up more travel options for San Diegans.
The project would create a secure bridge that lets U.S. passengers park on the Otay Mesa side, and cross through the terminal directly into the Tijuana Airport.
“It’s a stone’s throw away from the border on the Tijuana side,” Barrales said.
There are already one million people a year who cross over the border to use the airport from the U.S. side; projections show that number could double if the project is completed.
The second border crossing, a couple miles east of Otay Mesa, would help boost the number of commercial trucks driving across the border.