Sam Zell Is Building a Bridge from San Diego to Tijuana’s Airport that Its Mayor Didn’t Want

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Sam Zell

It’s not the bi-national airport envisioned more than 20 years ago, straddling the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, but a bridge being built from U.S. territory to the General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport by billionaire Sam Zell’s Equity Group Investments and others could have the same kind of impact on regional air flight.

Construction began in July on the $90-million project that would allow people to park on the American side of the border and walk through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint to board a plane on the other side for a small fee. Passengers landing at the airport will be able to make the reverse trek. The border site is 20 miles southeast of downtown San Diego, where that city’s airport is. 

Increased access to cheaper flights—up to 50% cheaper for some within Mexico, according to the New York Times—will offer an alternative to San Diego’s space-constrained Lindbergh Field and holds out the promise of increased regional development and capital flow. San Diego Magazine snarkily implied that a “safer” alternative to “navigating the streets in Tijuana” would also be welcome.  

For now, the principal beneficiaries would be the 2.4 million U.S. fliers who catch a plane in Tijuana and the airport, which relies on those travelers for 60% of its business.

But first they have to get it built. The overpass was originally scheduled to open this year, but the new target is 2015.

Preparations for the 525-foot enclosed overpass have been underway on the Mexican side for awhile, but little has been done in the U.S., where a 58-acre parcel lies untouched. The U.S. State Department signed off on the project in 2010, three years after Zell and Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacífico (GAP), joined forces. Back then, Zell was still the owner of Tribune Corp., parent of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, but he got out of the biz after the company went bankrupt.

Last week, Zell came to the defense of fellow billionaire Tom Perkins, who likened criticism of the wealthiest 1% in this country to Kristallnacht, an attack on German Jews in 1938 that is generally regarded as the beginning of the Holocaust. People “should not talk about envy of the 1 percent, they should talk about emulating the 1 percent,” Zell said in an interview on a Bloomberg TV show. “The 1 percent work harder, the 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.”  

GAP is a public-private partnership that operates 12 airports. Around 80% of the money was put up by Americans.

San Diego has been looking for a way to increase air traffic into the region, since its one-runway airport has few options for expansion. At one point, a plan was floated to build new runways on giant pontoons in San Diego Bay, but that didn’t happen. Another plan for building an airport in the desert and connecting to it with high-speed rail also never got off the ground.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the overpass. Business people in Tijuana expressed concern that travelers who spend their money there before and after flying, won’t stick around long enough to do that. Former Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante, whose city is locked in a property-tax battle with GAP, vowed to block the project, but did not. Bustamante left office in December when Jorge Astiazaran was elected mayor. 

The San Diego-born Bustamante told U-T San Diego, “Tell me, what benefit would it bring to Tijuana? More noise and more pollution.” Some in the business community agreed with him. Back in September, Juan Manuel Hernández, head of Tijuana’s Business Coordinating Council, said, “We’re not against it, but we still do not understand the full benefit of it. The majority of the business is going to be on the U.S. side.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More;

Tijuana Airport Parking, Just over the Border (by Billy Witz, New York Times)

Investors Land Prime Location for Cross-Border Air Terminal (by Michelle Mowad, San Diego Business Journal)

San Diego and Tijuana Envision Project to Join Airports, Funded by, Among Others, Tycoon Sam Zell (by Patricia Rey Mallén, International Business Times)

Plans Take Off for Tijuana Airport Border Project (by Sandra Dibble, U-T San Diego)

Leave a comment