CALEXICO — Although construction on the $191 million next phase of the Calexico West Port of Entry vehicular crossing off Second Street will get underway June 15, the final funding piece for the new downtown pedestrian crossing is still awaiting Congressional authorization as part of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal.
“I expect authorization any day now” on the final $99.7 million that is part of Trump’s proposed budget, said Anthony Kleppe, land port of entry program manager for the U.S. General Services Administration, Region 9.
Kleppe, who spoke to this newspaper in an interview June 8, said Congress has been focused on COVID-19 and has not yet approved the 2021 budget, but he expects that “any time now” the budget would pass muster before the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30.
When all is said and done, the entire Calexico West Port of Entry project will have cost the government $412,556,000, and the GSA hopes to have the project done and delivered by 2026, Kleppe said.
Meanwhile, local officials are pleased to see port construction moving forward but remain concerned that staffing levels for both the vehicular and pedestrian crossings are also part of the equation.
Kleppe couldn’t speak to staffing issues, saying that was the providence of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He could only speak to the GSA, the government agency that handles infrastructure projects for the United States.
Construction “should have happened a long time ago, but I’m really excited it’s finally going to get started,” said District 1 Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar, who represents the border region and Calexico. “Hopefully, this will spur economic development not just in Calexico, but the entire Imperial Valley.”
Escobar and other county and Calexico-area officials have met several times with Customs and Border Protection to address staffing and border wait times, but they have not met since the pandemic began, when the last meeting scheduled for March was cancelled as COVID-19 began to take hold, Escobar said during a June 8 interview.
Escobar said there are plans for the new pedestrian area that include expanding the number of pedestrian lanes from five to 10 “to increase flow,” but the staffing must be there, too.
“If you’re building a Taj Mahal, but only have two to three officers (working the lanes), it’s all for naught,” Escobar said.
Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge echoed Escobar’s sentiments but said his staffing concerns extend equally to vehicular and pedestrian lanes, where both have seen significant wait times prior to the pandemic.
“I’m very pleased (that construction is starting). It’s been a long time coming. I have my reservations, though,” Hodge said June 8. “We’ve seen two-and-a-half-hour, three-hour wait times because Customs is understaffed … I would say the increased wait times are pedestrian and vehicular.”
A new west port is important, Hodge said, but without the proper staffing, “What’s the point?”
As far as construction, the $191 final part of the vehicular crossing gets going June 15 and construction on the next portion of the project is expected to last through spring 2023, Kleppe said.
Funding for the so-called Phase 2A was approved in 2017 and allocated in the 2018 federal budget, according to GSA.
As part of this new build, the administrative office building for the West Port will move from the downtown 1970s-era “legacy” port off First Street, to a new structure “just to the southeast of the new head house (the vehicle crossing area built as part of the first phase of construction),” Kleppe said.
The administration building will be just over 84,000 square feet and house the offices for Customs and Border Protection officials with an area dedicated to GSA officials, Kleppe said.
Although the bulk of the “efficiencies” created by moving the vehicular crossing area to West Second Street came in the first phase of building that wrapped in 2018, Kleppe said Phase 2A will expand on that, adding to the number of both northbound and southbound lanes.
Currently 10 northbound lanes are in place, and Phase 2A will expand that to 16 northbound lanes. Kleppe assured that there will always be a minimum of 10 lanes open throughout the construction process to minimize any delays from the build.
Same with the southbound flow. There are now three southbound asphalt lanes and Phase 2A will expand that to five concrete lanes heading south. If there are delays in the process, Kleppe said there will be plenty of warning and signage.
In addition to the new administration building and lane expansions, other components of Phase 2A include an increased vehicle secondary canopy inspection area from nine to 16 lanes; new southbound inspection booths and canopy area; and a secured employee parking area.
As for First Street, there will be no construction timeline on Phase 2B, the new pedestrian crossing, until the funding is appropriated. However, Kleppe did speak about the new pedestrian crossing build in general terms.
To be clear, all vehicle crossing will stay west of Imperial Avenue off Second Street, and all pedestrian crossing will remain east of Imperial/Highway 111 off First Street.
Kleppe said the “legacy” building at First Street will be demolished and a new pedestrian crossing built on the same site. Temporary pedestrian crossing will occur near the alley areas on First Street near Heffernan Avenue.
“I think GSA, Region 9, is really excited about delivering this important project to Calexico,” Kleppe said.
He said new and expanded land ports create “little engines of opportunity for regional economies.”
Kleppe realizes Imperial County and Calexico has seen their fair share of economic struggles over the years, and he hopes that a more efficient and expanded port facility “adds real value” to the region.