SAN DIEGO — Cars driven by cross-border commuters will soon be required to carry California registration and pass the state's strict smog inspection to enter regularly from Mexico, U.S. officials warned Tuesday.
Under a new federal law aimed at reducing air pollution on California's southern border, customs inspectors can turn away frequent crossers whose cars don't comply with California requirements. The federal law, which takes effect April 27, will force many Mexican commuters to license their cars on both sides of the border and targets U.S. residents who register in Mexico to avoid paying for California smog checks and license plates.
"There are people on both sides of the border who have used the border as a way to hide and avoid their responsibility as employees and residents to have their cars smogged just like everyone else," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach), who sponsored the federal measure. "This act is to help fill the loophole."
Of the about 50,000 cars that cross the border at San Ysidro each day, about 7,000 are daily commuter cars registered in Mexico. The largest number of border crossers--those who drive north occasionally to shop or visit relatives--will not be affected by the law.
A 5-year-old state law requires smog checks and California registration for motorists who commute north across the border daily to work, but federal inspectors lacked the legal authority to enforce it. The new federal law is broader, including commuting students and U.S. citizens living in Mexico.
The law amends the federal Clean Air Act to allow customs inspectors to impound commuting vehicles registered solely in Mexico and fine drivers whose cars do not meet emissions standards. Drivers will be given two warnings before facing penalties. The federal act was crafted to apply only to the three border crossings--San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Tecate--in San Diego County. Those in Imperial County, which has less severe pollution, are not covered.
Air quality officials on the U.S. side say cars registered in Mexico generate, on average, three to 10 times as much pollution as those on the U.S. side. Cars driven across the border account for 11% to 13% of emissions in the San Diego region. Some registered in Mexico are older cars that lack emissionscontrol gear. But many newer ones have been stripped of anti-smog equipment, such as catalytic converters, that often are resold north of the border.
State anti-smog efforts were toothless at the border because federal inspectors couldn't enforce California's law.
"Nobody's ever gotten a ticket as far as I know. I don't even think the local police knew about it," said Andrew Hamilton, an air quality specialist for San Diego County.
Federal officials said they won't turn anyone back during the first 60 days the law is in effect so drivers have time to get their cars inspected, repaired or replaced. A giant electronic message board at the northbound border crossing has begun flashing word of the law. Authorities plan a publicity blitz on both sides of the border.
"We are now able to enforce the law as it exists on the books and apply it in a general way," said Rudy Camacho, customs service director for Southern California.
Implementation of the law will require many who live in Tijuana but work in California to register their cars in both places. Baja California residents are required to pay that state a $20 yearly automobile licensing fee, plus a tax based on 2.6% of the car's value. Meeting the U.S. smog provisions will not relieve Baja residents of the Mexican registration, said Enrique Gonzalez, a state tax official in Tijuana.
Despite the extra costs, some Tijuana drivers waiting in line to cross into San Ysidro expressed support for the smog measure. "It's also beneficial to us," said Olivia Dominguez, noting that air pollution is shared across the border. Dominguez regularly drives a Toyota pickup to sell produce in Los Angeles.
Guillermo Soltero, a mechanic behind the wheel of a wheezy Volkswagen, said he would be willing to pay extra for smog inspections in Tijuana.
Bilbray said binational efforts are under way to develop such a program in Baja California.