SAN DIEGO – Pedestrians at the nation's busiest border crossing are losing conveniences because of security measures that critics say amount to an unnecessary crackdown.
Last summer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed a special lane that whizzed bicyclists past a pedestrian line and spared them a wait that often lasts more than an hour. At about the same time, the agency said people with wheelchairs, canes and crutches could no longer cut to the front of the line.
This summer, the agency is targeting a popular pedestrian-only bridge that crosses 30 lanes of traffic, but has been the scene of stabbings and muggings. It also gives smugglers a birds-eye view of what vehicle inspectors are doing below, authorities say.
"If we were living in a perfect world, we would want to close it," said Adele Fasano, who oversaw the changes as CBP's field director in San Diego.
Closing the bridge at the San Ysidro border crossing would require many of the 20,000 pedestrians who cross the border daily to walk nearly a mile more to cross Interstate 5 on an overpass where two narrow sidewalks straddle four lanes of cars, taxis and buses.
"Traffic would be at a standstill, to say the very least," said Thomas Currie, president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, who represents the area, wrote CBP that closing the bridge would pose "serious safety concerns for pedestrians, especially at night."
CBP officials have been trying to strike a compromise with business and civic leaders. One possibility is closing the bridge during early morning hours when nearby trolleys and buses aren't running.
The government first raised concerns in March after a $550-million plan to expand and redesign the aging border crossing was delayed until at least 2014.
"In the interim, it needed to be addressed," Fasano said.
Anthony Amore, 43, crosses about six times a week and said he sometimes peers down from the bridge when border inspectors are using dogs to search cars.
The agents yell at him and other gawkers to keep walking, but, Amore says, "How can you not look? It's like the most excitement of the day."
Other cities along the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border have experimented with bicycle lanes, though officials were unaware of any that currently have them. Inspectors generally let disabled people go to the front of the line. Authorities were unaware of other crossings that limit access to pedestrian bridges.
The San Ysidro pedestrian bridge extends over 24 northbound and six southbound lanes of traffic. Walkers heading south to Mexico go through a bank of outdoor metal turnstiles on one side; those heading north to the United States enter through one of 14 booths inside a U.S. government building on the other side.
Americans headed to Mexico for inexpensive medical care, cheap pharmaceuticals or a stroll on the main tourist drag often park their cars in a giant lot near the turnstiles. When they return to the United States on the other side, the bridge gets them to their cars in a few minutes.
Many pedestrians are Mexican citizens who come to shop or visit family and friends. They typically hold visas that allow them to come to the U.S. for 30 days if they stay within 25 miles of the border.
The San Diego Trolley, popular with Mexicans and Americans, sits near the U.S. government building. Pedestrians cross the bridge to get to the turnstiles to Mexico.
On either side of the bridge are shops, restaurants and parking lots.
One recent afternoon on the bridge, a woman carried a sleeping toddler on her hip. A man carried a laptop computer and a plant. Another man pushed his walker. Many people hauled plastic bags and wheeled luggage.
In April 2006, CBP closed the special lane for cyclists at San Ysidro because people were renting shoddy bikes at the border for a few minutes, just to avoid the wait. The government ended front-of-line privileges for the disabled and elderly last summer because it was too difficult to ensure people were not feigning infirmities.
"You try to accommodate, and then people start to abuse the privilege," said Fasano.
There was little opposition to stripping privileges for cyclists and the disabled, but talk of closing the pedestrian bridge drew swift criticism from business and civic leaders, who had previously focused much of their lobbying on getting more traffic lanes.
Terry Brown, a wounded Vietnam veteran who lives in Tijuana, Mexico, and limps across the border twice a week to see his doctor in the United States, said the end of front-of-line privileges last year was bad enough.
"I don't want to have to go walking to God's green acre and around just to get across," Brown said.