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Flight Risk

Billionaire Sam Zell spearheads a bridge from SD to TJ International Airport


To travel directly to Beijing from San Diego you’ll need a boat. Weekend in Mexico City? Drive 120 miles to LAX or sit in border traffic—both ways—for Tijuana International Airport. Lindbergh doesn’t offer direct flights.

In peak years, as many as two million Southern Californians choose Tijuana. Come 2013, the trek from here to there will improve dramatically—from an hour-long crawl through freeway exhaust into a 10-minute stroll with central AC.

Last year, both the Presidential and Planning Commissions approved construction of an enclosed footbridge to connect San Diego to Tijuana International. Travelers can park on the American side at Otay Mesa, enter the walkway, and emerge inside the Mexican terminal.

In these days of heightened post-9/11 security, cartel-fueled violence, and increasing amounts of drugs tunneling their way into the U.S., is it wise to open another border portal? Especially one that is for-profit and privately owned and operated by a joint Mexican-American holding company?

Yes, say supporters. And it may be safer than navigating the streets of Tijuana.

There are other privately operated crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border, but Otay will be the first to connect directly to the airport. The idea is not new. “It’s been floating around the San Diego area for easily 10 years,” says Greg Rose, managing director for Chicago-based Equity Group Investments. There have been numerous proposals, one of which suggested jumbo jets taxi across the border to drop off passengers on American soil. “Obviously, that sort of idea was very complicated from a security and a logistic standpoint.”

Billionaire investor Sam Zell—former owner of the Tribune Company and Chicago Cubs—has money in the game. He owns Equity Group Investments, which is a partner in Otay-Tijuana Ventures LLC, the private group that will build and own the crossing. But Javier Lachica calls ownership “an interesting question,” considering the project is one-third American and two-thirds Mexican.

Lachica is the project manager for the Mexican group of investors. He says Tijuana International (also known as Rodriguez International) is run by a private entity called Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, or GAP, a holding company that controls a dozen international airports throughout Mexico.  

“GAP decided it was not in their interests to pursue the bridge,” he says. “But they allowed the Mexican investors to go ahead on their own.” Lachica says they are Carlos Laviada and Laura Diez Barroso Azcarraga de Laviada, part owners of Grupo Aeroportuario, and investors Eduardo Sanchez Navarro and Juan Gallardo.  

Lachica describes the footbridge as three parts. “The first is the terminal that we will construct on U.S. soil. That includes the bridge up to the fence. The second part is the rest of the bridge, which will cross from the fence to the Tijuana airport.” The third part is the connecting terminal that will be built at the Tijuana airport itself.    

There will be a parking fee and a toll to use the bridge. The revenue model includes plans for the usual airport amenities: gift shops, fast food and coffee shops, which mean jobs for Otay Mesa. While the bridge construction team finalizes design and operations with Customs and Border Protection, plans will go to the City Council for final approval.

[ by the numbers ]

3.6 Million passengers served by the Tijuana International Airport in 2010

300 Approximate distance in yards the Tijuana airport sits from the U.S. border

4.7 Driving distance in miles from the border to the Tijuana airport

25 Pesos per hour to park a car in the secured, indoor garage at the Tijuana airport, with a maximum of 175 pesos per day

$3 Billion lost in economic activity because of the border wait times, according to a 2007 San Diego Association of Governments study

$78 Reported cost in millions to complete the new terminal bridge to Tijuana International at the Otay border

63 Sam Zell’s ranking on the Top 100 Wealthiest Americans list by Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion

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