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The State

Planned Closure of Bike Lane at Border Crossing Draws Criticism

Safety: Legislator says INS and customs officials can take other measures to avoid accidents at the busy port of entry.

April 05, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A decision by U.S. officials at the busy U.S.-Mexico border to close a bicycle path used by Tijuana residents is provoking the ire of bicyclists and their supporters in both countries.

After crossing procedures at San Ysidro were tightened because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of people entering the U.S. by bicycle increased twentyfold, as border crossers sought to avoid long delays in automobile lanes or pedestrian walkways.

But the INS and Customs Service announced this week that, starting Monday, the bicycle lane at San Ysidro--said to be the world's busiest port of entry--will be closed to prevent collisions between cars and bikes.

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Congressman Urges Alternative Strategies

Reaction has been swift and angry.

"This plan is totally ridiculous," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), whose district includes San Ysidro. "If there are concerns about bikes mixing with cars, find a way to keep them apart without shutting them out."

Jaime Guzman, who pedals across the border at San Ysidro and takes the San Diego trolley to his job as a maintenance worker in a downtown high-rise, said the bicycle lane "has been wonderful" since the Sept. 11 crackdown.

Waiting in line with other pedestrians, he said, "will add many hours each week to my wait and keep me from being with my children. It's very unfortunate."

But officials insist that bicyclists have been spotted weaving in and out of the 24 northbound lanes to get to the bicycle lane. Also, they say, bicyclists are ignoring signs that say, in English and Spanish, "No Bicycle Parking."

"We've had a lot of near misses and close calls," said John Ramirez, community affairs director for the San Diego office of the INS. "We want to do something before we have a tragedy. We feel we've dodged the bullet so far."

Building a protected bicycle lane as suggested by Filner and others would be expensive and time consuming, officials said.

The wait for cars is commonly two--and sometimes as much as four--hours as 42,000 vehicles each day make the northward trek. The wait for pedestrians can also be two hours or more.

Metal detectors have been installed in the pedestrian lanes, and pedestrians and motorists have been subjected to more intense questioning and inspections.

Bicyclists are allowed to go to the front of the automobile lane. Under the rule to take effect Monday, cyclists will be required to walk their bikes across the border and stand in the same line as the estimated 32,000 pedestrians who cross each day.

"Every day we've seen children on small bicycles trailing behind their parents moving in and out from between cars," Ramirez said. "Even though the cars are moving slow, it wouldn't take much for a very bad accident to occur."

San Diego Police Sgt. Elsa Castillo said officers have noticed "bicyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, cutting in and out of traffic, and riding on sidewalks even though the sidewalks are very congested."

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Crossings Rose to 2,000 Daily Before Declining

Before Sept. 11, about 100 bicyclists crossed the border each day by walking through the indoor pedestrian entrance. After the bicycle lane opened, the number of bicyclists increased to nearly 2,000, but it has declined sharply as the auto and pedestrian lanes have begun moving faster, officials said.

One day, officials counted 700 bicycles locked to public and private property near the trolley station. As a goodwill gesture, the trolley district has opted not to enforce an ordinance against chaining bikes to trolley station fences.

Berta Gonzales, vice president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, said closing the bike lane will hurt small retail businesses near the border that depend on customers from Tijuana. Bicycle rentals are expected to be especially hard hit.

"This will hurt us all very badly, and the worst thing is that they didn't talk to us at all about it," Gonzales said. "Our employees will have trouble getting to work on time, and our customers will stay away."

Border businesses have already been hurt by the tightened security measures. The San Diego City Council declared the area to be in an economic state of emergency and appealed to the federal government for financial assistance to keep businesses from going bankrupt.

So far, the federal government has not responded, local officials said.

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