Cross Border Xpress — Full-Service Terminal Minus the Aircraft

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

As of December 9, 2015, travelers flying out of Tijuana’s General Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport (TIJ) have a faster and easier way to access the Mexican airport from the U.S. side of the border. Instead of waiting in long lines of vehicles at the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa border crossings, airline passengers can now use the new Cross Border Xpress (CBX) terminal, which spans the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Southbound passengers with airline boarding passes can park on the U.S. side of the CBX terminal in southern San Diego, and then use its pedestrian bridge to enter directly into TIJ’s Mexico Immigration & Customs area. Conversely, northbound travelers landing at TIJ can pass through the 390-foot enclosed footbridge within two hours after landing and enter into a U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) area on the U.S. side of CBX. 

Project: Cross Border Xpress Terminal
Location: Otay Mesa, CA, with pedestrian bridge that connects to Tijuana Int’l Airport
Cost: $120 million
Terminal Size: 86,000 sq. ft. 
Pedestrian Bridge: 390 ft. long; spans six-lane Mexican highway
Terminal Amenities: Airline ticket counters; food & beverage concessions; duty-free shopping; free Wi-Fi; assistance for disabled guests; bilingual customer service; short- and long-term parking; car rental; access to ground transportation; luggage porters
Owner & Operator: Otay Tijuana Venture
Prime Consultant & Architect of Record: Stantec Architecture 
Associate Architect: Legorreta + Legorreta
General Contractor: Turner Construction
Construction Management: The Harrison Co.
U.S. Subcontractor: Hazard Construction 
Mexican Subcontractor: Grumesa S.A. de C.V. 
Parking & General Terminal Services: LAZ Parking
Of Note: First & only U.S. airport terminal to connect directly into a foreign country; only airport in the world that spans an international border

A one-way ticket for the bridge costs $12 and round trip $24. All told, the walk takes about five minutes. 

The one-of-a-kind CBX is essentially a full-service airport terminal minus the aircraft. According to developers, it is the first and only U.S. airport terminal to connect directly into a similar foreign facility, and the only airport in the world that spans international borders. 

The new 86,000-square-foot terminal offers nearly all of the amenities found in traditional airports: food and beverage concessions, duty-free shopping, airline ticket counters, free Wi-Fi, assistance for disabled guests, bilingual customer service, short- and long-term parking, car rental, and easy access to ground transportation. “It’s just the runway is located in Mexico,” quips CBX Chief Commercial Officer Elizabeth Brown.  

The unique concept, designed by architect of record Stantec Architecture, takes advantage of a unique geographical opportunity. “The Tijuana Airport terminal lies immediately across the U.S.-Mexico border,” explains Stantec Executive Vice President Stanis Smith. “One can stand on the U.S. side and see the Tijuana terminal. Each year, millions of people drive across the border at one of two land crossings to take advantage of the cheap flights out of Tijuana. Our client, who purchased 55 acres of U.S. land in Otay Mesa immediately north of the border, had the visionary  — at the time, some said crazy — idea of building a bridge across the border.” 

When the idea was proposed in 2008, it sounded very improbable, recalls Smith. But the project moved forward despite significant challenges, not the least of which was obtaining a U.S. presidential permit to build a new U.S. Customs & Border Protection facility. Eventually, all the necessary permits and permissions were secured from the United States and Mexico, and construction of the $120 million CBX began in spring 2014. 

“We’ve done some digging, and as far as we know, this is the first greenfield U.S. Customs and Border Protection built in North America since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994,” notes Smith. 

Otay Tijuana Venture, a private investment group with U.S. and Mexican shareholders, developed CBX and currently operates it. TIJ’s low-cost fares are expected to provide a steady stream of customers to the new facility, which is projected to serve about 2.4 million travelers annually. TIJ offers service to more than 30 destinations within Mexico and direct flights to Shanghai and Tokyo. 

Airport Services
After crossing the pedestrian bridge with their luggage, southbound passengers with boarding passes proceed through Mexican Customs and check their luggage at TIJ. Northbound travelers retrieve their luggage at TIJ, and then proceed across the bridge to Customs on the U.S. side. The U.S. Customs facility inside CBX accepts travelers with SENTRI, Global Entry and I-94 credentials. Luggage porters are available to assist in both directions.

When personnel from Otay Tijuana Venture approached LAZ Parking about managing the 900-stall parking operation at CBX, they soon realized that the company could also provide a number of other critical services. Outside the terminal, LAZ manages curb traffic and coordinates access of commercial vehicles, explains Jared Svendsen, LAZ’s regional vice president. Inside the facility, the parking operator sells tickets for the pedestrian bridge and provides information concierge service at desks near airline counters. LAZ also provides wheelchair service and luggage porters for passengers traveling in both directions. 

Brown enthusiastically refers to LAZ as the “face and brand” of the facility. “We depend on them to deliver very high quality customer service,” she explains. “They are much more than parking management services, and we are really fortunate to have them here to provide critical services.”

Excitement about the new facility is running high. “CBX will transform the border crossing experience for millions of travelers,” states Carlos Laviada, an investor in the project. “We started the planning and approvals for the CBX over eight years ago, and it has garnered incredible support on both sides of the border. Inter-country travel for leisure and business is a critical economic driver for this entire region.”

Mark Cafferty, chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, considers the CBX terminal a great example of private investment and development. He describes the facility as a “much-needed public infrastructure to facilitate safe, secure travel and trade.”

California Cool, Mexico Modern
Contractors broke ground on the new CBX facility in May 2014. Workers built the skybridge that passes over Mexico’s six-lane Via de la Juventud Ote Highway by using a crane to set six 75-ton steel sections into place. When joining the bridge to TIJ’s recently renovated terminal, a 70-member team had only 9 inches of clearance. 

The facility’s design was a collaboration between Mexican architecture firm Legorreta + Legorreta and U.S.-based architect of record Stantec. Together, the firms blended architectural and aesthetic styles from Southern California and Mexico. 

As prime consultant for the project, Stantec took the lead, providing most of the planning and engineering services. “It’s a quirk of geography that made this project possible in the first place,” reflects Smith. “The facility design provides for the easy and intuitive flow of travelers across the border in both directions, creating a celebratory ‘gateway’ experience for travelers at the beginning and end of their journeys.”

Strong colors and simple forms give the building a characteristically Mexican flavor. “It’s a very contemporary building — not nostalgic,” he adds. 

High-efficiency mechanical equipment installed throughout the facility exceeds California’s Title 24 energy code by fully 25%, Smith reports. Furthermore, the new facility is expected to significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions produced by cross-border vehicle traffic.

Legorreta + Legorreta was responsible for the aesthetic feel and the signature architectural forms of the structure. Notably, the project is one of the last commissioned works of the late Ricardo Legorreta, world-renowned and internationally acclaimed for his bold architectural and design references to Mexican culture. 

The building’s strong exterior façade features sangre de toro (bull’s blood), a natural stone with shades of red and purple. Vibrant colors, subtly altered by changing sunlight patterns throughout the day, highlight the exterior’s dramatic geometric shapes, describes Legorreta + Legorreta Project Manager Emmanuel Perez Eguiarte. 

The terminal’s stone gardens include agave and other desert plants. And an interior courtyard with a water feature serves as a gathering place where travelers and greeters can enjoy Southern California’s hospitable weather. Entering the building, travelers encounter a high-ceilinged space with large orange circles of recessed lighting. The pedestrian bridge features window patterns that pay tribute to papel picado, a colorful Mexican folk art of intricately cut tissue paper used as decorations for important festivities. 

Designing a facility to satisfy the demands of two national governments and a diverse group of private investors required extensive planning and deliberation, notes Eguiarte. “The many, many design discussions resulted in good solutions that only made the project better,” he reflects.


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