By Amanda Beck
SAN DIEGO, Aug. 25 (AP) — Pedestrians at the nation’s busiest border crossing are losing conveniences in what the authorities describe as measures to improve security and critics say is an unnecessary crackdown.
Last summer, federal Customs and Border Protection closed a special lane that whizzed bicyclists past a pedestrian line and spared them a wait that often ran more than an hour. 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, it is taking aim at a popular pedestrian-only bridge that crosses 30 lanes of traffic, but has been the scene of stabbings and muggings and given smugglers a birds-eye view of what vehicle inspectors are doing below, the authorities said.
"If we were living in a perfect world, we would want to close it," said Adele Fasano, who oversaw the changes as the border bureau’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 longer 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.
Representative Bob Filner, whose district includes the area, wrote the bureau that closing the bridge would pose "serious safety concerns for pedestrians, especially at night."
Border officials have been trying to strike a compromise with business and civic leaders. One possibility is closing the bridge during the early morning hours, when nearby trolleys and buses are not running.
The government first raised concerns in March after a $550-million plan to expand and redesign the aging border crossing was delayed to at least 2014.
Other cities along the 1,952-mile border between Mexico and the United States have experimented with bicycle lanes, though officials said they were unaware of any that currently have them. Inspectors generally let disabled people go to the front of the line, and the authorities say they do not know of other crossings that limit access to pedestrian bridges.
The San Ysidro pedestrian bridge extends over 24 northbound and 6 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 in a federal 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 parking lot near the turnstiles. When they return to the United States, the bridge gets them to their cars in a few minutes.
Many pedestrians are Mexican citizens who come to shop or to visit family and friends. They typically hold visas that allow them to come to the United States for 30 days if they stay within 25 miles of the border.
The San Diego Trolley, popular with Mexicans and Americans, sits near the government building. Pedestrians cross the bridge to get to the turnstiles that put them in Mexico.
In April 2006, the border bureau 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. That summer, the government ended front-of-line privileges for disabled and older people because it was too hard to ensure that people were not feigning infirmities.
"You try to accommodate, and then people start to abuse the privilege," Ms. Fasano said.
There was little opposition to stripping privileges for cyclists and disabled people, 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.