Two dozen agencies review Mexican border bridge

How many federal agencies does it take to approve a bridge?

Two and a half years after they began, the city of San Diego, Calif., and a private developer are attempting to wrap up the complicated federal permitting process for a new pedestrian-only bridge between downtown Tijuana, Mexico, and a planned, 66-acre retail and office complex on the San Diego side of the border. Aided by lobbyists at the law firm Mannatt, Phelps & Phillips, the backers of the International Gateway of the Americas are seeking a "presidential permit" approved by almost two dozen federal agencies--the standard course of action for new ports of entry with Canada and Mexico. The agencies that must approve aspects of the project include the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department, the General Services Administration and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Backers tout the new bridge as a much-needed improvement over the nearby San Ysidro crossing, which is clogged with 86 million pedestrian and vehicular travelers annually. The proposed bridge would not only be architecturally distinctive but would also provide a direct link between Tijuana's main tourist street, Avenida Revolucion, and a snazzy, 655,000-square-foot shopping mall featuring such retailers as Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap, Polo and Levi's. The project should create 2,200 new jobs and generate $8 million in annual tax revenue, according to LandGrant Development, the real-estate developer that is seeking to build the project. LandGrant president C. Samuel Marasco bills the project as a way to turn a "back door" into a "front door." The team at Mannatt, Phelps--a Los Angeles-based firm with strong ties to Mexico's government and business sectors--is led by Robert J. Kabel, a former special assistant to President Reagan and a onetime aide to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. The team also includes Eric Farnsworth, who served as policy director to Mack McLarty, President Clinton's special envoy to the Americas. Farnsworth also was a staff member for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department from 1990-95. The Gateway project would be the first privately built crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border, though privately built crossings have been erected on the U.S.-Canada border. The private-sector role means that federal officials will be closely scrutinizing the proposed project's security features and environmental impacts. On the one hand, "private money waits around only so long" before throwing in the towel, Kabel said. On the other hand, he added, "we're not trying to rush it, because we understand the concerns about security." Historically, presidential permits have taken 7-10 years to wend their way through the agencies, Kabel said. But with the approval process gaining steam on the Mexican side of the border, "our objective is to have it acted on before the end of the summer," Kabel said. "We would like to have it approved by [Mexican President Vicente] Fox's scheduled visit" to the White House in early September. If so, backers say they hope to complete the project by the end of 2002.

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