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INS Backpedals on Closing Bike Lane at Border

Crossing: Officials accede to public outcry, find another, safer way to speed hundreds of northbound cyclists through the San Ysidro checkpoint.

April 06, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — After a public outcry, officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on Friday reversed a decision to close a bicycle lane used by Tijuana residents to avoid lengthy delays at the San Ysidro border crossing.

Starting at 6 a.m. Monday, a "bikes only" lane will be created in the pedestrian inspection area, replacing a bicycle lane adjacent to the vehicle lanes that officials believe is unsafe.

Earlier this week, the INS and U.S. Customs Service had announced the imminent closure of the bicycle lane, which has become enormously popular for border-crossers eager to avoid the hours-long waits caused by a crackdown in security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the East. No mention was made of a bike lane in the pedestrian area.

But on Friday, just hours after Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), who represents the border area, held a news conference blasting the bike lane closure, INS district director Adele Fasano issued a statement about a new lane in the pedestrian section.

"We believe this approach continues to give bikers a convenient and expedient way to enter the United States without putting their lives in harm's way," Fasano said.

Fasano also announced that the INS will meet next week with officials from customs and the California Department of Transportation to discuss possible long-term solutions, including a permanent bicycle lane--a suggestion made by Filner and others a day earlier.

"This is fantastic," said San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza, who represents San Ysidro. "Every now and then, you can turn around a bad decision. Clearly, they heard the voices of the community."

INS officials said the lane in the pedestrian section had always been part of the plan. However, it had not been mentioned before Friday, and signs posted in Spanish and English at the border mentioned only the closure of the lane adjacent to the vehicle lanes.

By using the special lane next to the 24 lanes open to cars, trucks and other motor vehicles, bicyclists had been able to cross the border in minutes. Crossing in a motor vehicle often takes two hours and sometimes longer.

If bicyclists, as originally suggested, had been required to stand in line with pedestrians, they could have faced waits of up to several hours. A bicycle lane in the pedestrian area, while not as fast as the special lane they once enjoyed, will still represent a relatively speedy way to cross the border.

After Sept. 11, the number of bicyclists rose dramatically as Tijuana residents looked for ways to reduce the wait needed to get to jobs, stores and other destinations north of the border.

On some days, the number of bicyclists approached 2,000, up from a daily average of 100 before Sept. 11. As the vehicle and pedestrian crossing waits gradually eased, the number of bicyclists declined to between 800 and 1,000.

Officials said that the sight of bicyclists weaving in and out of vehicle lanes prompted them to decide to close the lane before someone was hurt.

The busiest border crossing in the world, the San Ysidro port of entry averages 42,000 vehicles and 32,000 pedestrians a day. Although most of the concern has been for bicycle riders from Tijuana, some San Diego County residents also use bikes to cross into Mexico.

"Without bicycles, we'd be in deep trouble," said Chris Nelson, a Spring Valley teacher who went to Tijuana on Friday on a rented bicycle to meet friends. "We understand the need for security, but we also need to continue relations between the two countries."

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