Traffic flows smoothly at damaged border crossing

AP News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2011 6:04 PM
Traffic flows smoothly at damaged border crossing

Traffic flowed smoothly at the nation's busiest border crossing Thursday as crews removed scaffolding that collapsed on more than a dozen cars and authorities tried to determine when it would be safe to fully reopen.

Travelers speculated that other commuters stayed home in Tijuana, Mexico when faced with the prospect of nightmarish waits at the San Ysidro port of entry to San Diego. To their delight, they found waits were about half the usual time.

Nicolas Gonzales, 25, of Tijuana, set his alarm for 5 a.m., a half-hour early. He crosses daily and usually waits an hour to walk across on his way work at a Taco Bell in suburban Chula Vista. He got through in about 30 minutes and used the extra time to join friends for breakfast.

"Normally, I'm running to get to work on time," said Gonzales, who declined his supervisor's offer to miss work without pay. "Today, it's been very relaxed."

Victor Rodriguez, 47, was prepared to skip his workout before his shift as a bus driver for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. He found himself with enough time to get to his San Diego gym and run an errand.

"The people who cross for pleasure didn't come, only the people who had no choice," said Rodriguez, who read a newspaper as his 1991 Toyota Corolla inched toward an inspection booth.

All U.S.-bound traffic was halted Wednesday after scaffolding installed to protect cars from overhead construction collapsed onto eight lanes, leaving a mess of wooden planks, metal supports and black tarpaulin atop 15 vehicles that had just passed inspection booths.

A construction worker was seriously hurt, and 10 others were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, including a pregnant woman.

Pedestrian lanes reopened after eight hours and 13 of 24 U.S-bound vehicle lanes reopened at midnight. Mexico-bound traffic was never interrupted.

The Customs and Border Protection agency said Thursday that it didn't know when the remaining 11 lanes would reopen.

"We need to ensure that we can do this safely," Chris Maston, CBP's field operations director in San Diego, said at a news conference.

The General Services Administration, which owns the port of entry, was assessing the integrity of the scaffold and trying to learn what caused its collapse.

"We certainly don't want to go beyond a week to get these things resolved," said Langston Trigg, who is supervising the $577 million overhaul of San Ysidro at GSA.

The crossing _ a key piece of the San Diego-Tijuana economy _ last closed more than 30 years ago when a security issue arose, Maston said.

About 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians enter the United States each day at San Ysidro, a bulk of them headed to school or work. They include many U.S. citizens who live in Tijuana to be with family or because housing costs are much lower.

Heightened security since the 2001 terrorist attacks has accustomed motorists to commutes of longer than two hours. Pedestrians can wait more than an hour.

During Thursday's morning rush, motorists waited about an hour and pedestrians were idled for 15 to 30 minutes.

The breezy commute was bad news for Tijuana street vendors hawking cotton candy, chips and oatmeal in Styrofoam cups to idled motorists. Workers who normally hustle through traffic relaying orders by walkie-talkie for cappuccinos and "bionic burritos" found business unusually slow.

Jorge Aleman, 18, usually calls in orders for 120 burritos to a nearby food stand each morning but found only about 50 takers Thursday.

"People got scared and stayed home," he said.

The border crossing has stayed open round-the-clock amid construction to replace buildings from the 1970s and accommodate 85 million travelers a year, up from 50 million currently. The lead contractor is Hensel Phelps Construction Co., based in Greeley, Colo.

To lighten traffic during the shutdown, truck lanes at San Diego's Otay Mesa crossing, about five miles east, are opening to cars at night. A crossing in Tecate, about 40 miles east, will stay open overnight instead of closing at 11 p.m.