BY GARY REDFERN
Business Buzz Reporter
Imperial County will soon get relief from a major traffic headache following a Sept. 27 decision by a local transportation board to fund a $1.3-million project widening from one lane to two the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 86 north of Brawley.
The unanimous funding vote was made by the Local Transportation Authority. Made up of representatives from Imperial County and each of its seven cities, the LTA divvies up millions of dollars collected under the county-voter-approved “Measure D” countywide half-cent sales tax for road repairs.
Though located in a remote rural area between municipalities about 20 miles northwest of Brawley, the checkpoint bottleneck has long backed up traffic—sometimes up to a mile or more—headed north.
A four-lane, divided highway, 86 is one of only two roads connecting Imperial County to the bustling Coachella Valley and Interstate 10 in Riverside County. It is a busy corridor for both passenger vehicles and trucks moving goods, many of each going from the international border crossings at Calexico to the Los Angeles area.
At the checkpoint, one of many in the Southwest border region, Border Patrol agents stop vehicles to interdict contraband, mainly drugs, and illegal immigrants.
Seeking a way to widen the checkpoint has been a priority for local officials lobbying in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., in recent years. However, action required a rare arrangement between local, state and federal authorities, said Mark Baza, executive director of the Imperial County Transportation Commission, an umbrella authority whose oversight includes the LTA.
Getting the checkpoint widened required local officials to obtain agreement from Border Patrol parent agency U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the California Department of Transportation that has jurisdiction over state Hwy. 86, Baza explained. Those negotiations have been on-going since July 2016.
“This is the first time (in Imperial County) a regional/local entity is paying for federal infrastructure,” Baza said.
CBP determined it would cost the agency $3 million to add a lane to the checkpoint, but the effort then stalled, Baza recalled.
“We found out from the feds it was a priority and they submitted a (federal budget) request but it was not ranking very high on the priorities list,” Baza said.
However, working with Caltrans and CBP a way was found to reduce the cost to $1.3 million and at that point local funding became an option, Baza added.
“From an economic development standpoint, it is tremendously important,” he said, explaining that traffic delays such as those caused at the one-lane checkpoint impede commerce by slowing transit time and raising fuel costs.
The idling engines of waiting vehicles also contribute to pollution, Baza said.
He added the next step is to have Caltrans complete the design. It is hoped construction would begin in late 2017 or early 2018 and be completed in 2018. The project will move the checkpoint a short distance south of its current location, which would then become the “secondary” area where vehicles are detained for more thorough inspection, Baza added.
“It is similar to what was done at the checkpoint at Buckman Springs,” Baza said, referring to a recently completed renovation of the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8 between Imperial County and San Diego.