Friday, August 30, 2013

Baja tourism chief promotes border crossing drivers license

Baja tourism chief promotes border crossing drivers license
By Michael Gardner Aug. 21, 2013

The San Ysidro border crossing. [U-T file] - Howard Lipin

SACRAMENTO - A top Mexican tourism official on Wednesday backed legislation creating a special California driver's license to help speed up wait times at border crossings, saying the economies of both states would benefit.

"Let us continue to build bridges that will unite us and not walls that will divide us," Baja California Tourism Secretary Juan Tintos urged in his testimony to California lawmakers.

Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, is carrying legislation that would initiate a voluntary "enhanced drivers license" for California residents who frequently visit Mexico. The licenses would be embedded with technology that allows border agents to use scanners to read information from a distance, thereby helping move vehicle traffic through the "ready lanes" more quickly.

Without discussion, the Assembly Appropriations Committee postponed a final vote until later this month. Although license applicants would pay an extra fee to cover costs, the Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that launching the program will take $4.5 million.

Business interests say the excruciating often hours-long waits cost millions of dollars in commerce by discouraging cross-border trips for recreation, shopping and dining.

"I am certain this will strengthen our relationship and economic ties," Tintos said in his testimony,

In a later interview, Tintos said Baja California is enjoying one of its best tourism summers in a decade - up about 25 percent - as security fears ease and the region's economy rebounds.

Its destinations also saw business drop off when the U.S. began requiring a passport for re-entry, which caused "people to think twice," he said. The drug cartel wars also scared away visitors.

"We have made a great deal of progress on our side," he said.

The California tourist dollar flows back to the state when Baja California residents visit San Diego area shops, restaurants and parks, Tintos said.

Hueso said studies indicate that California's economy loses about $1.3 billion a year because of congestion at ports of entry. Wait times now average 70 minutes and at peak congestion it can take three hours to cross.

"We should ask ourselves: 'Why are we not doing this?'," Hueso said.

Jose Larroque, representing the Smart Border Coalition, told lawmakers: "The border is not only an incredible economic engine, it is also the gateway that allows ties among our communities - the flow of relations in health, education, culture and family."

If signed into law, California would become the first state bordering Mexico to offer such a program. Several states adjacent to Canada already provide a similar license to about 100,000 drivers.

Tintos said Arizona and Texas are looking to implement a similar program.

By acting now, Baja California and the state of California will have an edge, he said. "We've got to take the lead," Tintos said.

License applicants would have to be eligible of a U.S. passport, undergo rigorous security checks and pay more.

There was no opposition voiced at the committee. But privacy advocates have expressed concerns that the license could expose drivers to identity theft and government tracking because the readers are commercially available.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on Senate Bill 397.

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