‘This is a mess’: 70% surge in Downtown bridge traffic at Stanton causes headaches
As the clock rounded 4 p.m. on a Thursday, cross-border commuters white-knuckled their way toward Juárez in a bridge line that would snarl El Paso Downtown traffic for hours.
Between the international bridge and Paisano Drive, seven blocks of South Stanton Street filled with southbound traffic, marking the school and work day’s end and the beginning of the Borderland rush hour. At Paisano, the intersection was mobbed in all four directions. Traffic lights became decorative as drivers ignored them and lay into their horns.
For tens of thousands of border residents, Stanton Street is the scene of a daily via crucis, a path of suffering, as they return to Juárez from their classes, jobs, shopping or errands in El Paso.
The traffic problem is decades-old. But it’s gotten worse: El Paso city officials say southbound vehicle volumes at the Downtown bridge surged 70% in 2022 compared with 2018, the last “normal” year for international crossings. That was the last year before White House policies, including nearly two years of border restrictions during the pandemic, choked border crossings.
“The numbers have increased dramatically,” said Roberto Tinajero, interim director of the city’s bridges department. “Obviously we are aware of the situation. We know there is a lot of traffic.”
The city plans to commission a traffic study of a roughly 10-square-block Downtown area that encompasses the southbound Stanton and northbound Paso del Norte bridges. In the meantime, the city is paying for up to six police officers to manage traffic on Thursdays and Fridays, Tinajero said.
But the congestion hits nearly every weekday afternoon and Saturday mornings, too. Border commuters, Downtown business owners and police say they are exasperated by a problem that hurts business and leads to frequent confrontations and collisions.
A man driving a white pickup truck said he was headed to Juárez to see the doctor on Thursday evening, but he didn’t leave home with enough time to spare.
“This is a mess,” he said. “I was in line at the free bridge, but it was bad, too. This is why we don’t go to Juárez.”
Sgt. Robert Gomez, an El Paso police spokesman who also manages officer overtime at the Stanton Street bridge, said he believes commuters “would be content to start with a peaceful wait.”
“The line is the line, but if everybody can cross over into Mexico and not have to fight the entire way, it would be a start,” he said.
One bridge, 2 million motorists
It is tough to pinpoint what drives increased traffic on any given day, but data shows that Stanton is contending with more passenger vehicles than any time in recent years.
Vehicle traffic at the Stanton Street bridge averaged about 1.1 million southbound cars annually between 2017 and 2020, said Tom Fullerton, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Texas at El Paso who tracks border data.
“But it skyrocketed to more than 2 million in 2021 and reached nearly 1.9 million last year,” he said.
El Paso has three southbound bridges within the city footprint — Stanton, Ysleta-Zaragoza and the Bridge of the Americas — and they function as an interconnected system.
Border commuters tend to use one or another bridge based on proximity to their destination and their willingness to pay a $3.50 toll at the two city-owned bridges, Stanton and Ysleta-Zaragoza. But drivers also search for the shortest southbound queues, checking crowd-sourced reports on social media or the city’s real-time traffic camera feeds online.
“The bridges, and the arterial linkages to those bridges, represent bottlenecks that hamper productivity and commerce in the region,” Fullerton said. “When one part of the system faces reduced capacity or longer lines, it affects the other parts of the system as well.”
Cross-border traffic is sensitive to “externalities,” Tinajero said, and is shifting all the time. The pandemic, the economy, the dollar-peso exchange rate, holidays in the U.S. or Mexico and construction are among the factors that can influence traffic patterns.
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Tanny Berg, executive director of the Central Business Association, said he and Downtown business owners have been clamoring for years for solutions to a perennial problem he says dates back to the 1990s.
“No place on earth would settle for enduring the indignity that the crossers endure,” Berg said. “If the George Washington bridge in New York City (connecting Manhattan and New Jersey) was impeded, you would see a major congressional issue. And yet here we have an international border crossing and we are contributing to the logjam by not making the changes necessary. It shouldn’t be difficult.”
Berg has criticized the city for not dedicating more of the bridge toll funds to maintaining or upgrading the bridge infrastructure, or to installing infrastructure that could improve the border crossing experience.
The city collected $27.3 million in tolls at the Stanton, Paso del Norte and Zaragoza bridges in fiscal 2022, up 11% from $24.6 million in fiscal 2021, according to the city’s international bridges department.
Each year, roughly 60% of the funds collected are transferred to the city’s general fund, while the rest is used for operating the bridges and the city’s parking meters, Tinajero said.
City Council Rep. Chris Canales, who represents Downtown, said the bridge, which was completed in 1967, “clearly wasn’t designed for the amount of vehicle traffic that it gets today.”
“Bad behavior from drivers like cutting the line or blocking the intersections causes a lot of the frustration, but I don’t think changing driver behavior is a realistic solution,” he said. “There has to be a policy or design change, whether that’s a change in configuration of the traffic pattern or some other intervention.”
Solutions to the bottleneck
In mid-February, at 4:30 p.m., four police officers set up plastic orange barricades along several of the side streets that feed into Stanton — where drivers try to cut ahead into a southbound bridge line that can stretch for many blocks east and west on Paisano.
It was a freezing, windy Thursday. Bundled up against the cold, the officers waved drivers to the back of the line. Barricades aren’t enough, they said: Border commuters are a tough bunch, accustomed to driving in Juárez with fewer enforced road rules, and will get out of their cars and move barricades out of the way.
With multiple entry points, the line can appear to come to a standstill for those drivers who enter at the “back” of the line on Paisano. It’s not the wait, per se, that bothers most drivers, police say; it’s the fighting for their place in line at every intersection and not knowing how long the wait might be.
Sometimes the wait can stretch to an hour.
The officers — when they are there — keep people in line, literally.
But there aren’t enough police officers available and willing to work the bridge traffic overtime assignment, Gomez said, and the city has so far been willing to pay only on Thursdays and Fridays. Even if the city authorized more overtime, Gomez said he doesn’t have the personnel on hand.
Officers who spend hours on the line have their own suggestions to relieve some of the bottleneck, Gomez said. They recommend:
- Making both lanes of South Stanton Street southbound during peak rush hours, or permanently
- Closing the westbound left turn lane of Paisano so that drivers enter via right turn on eastbound Paisano
- Encouraging or requiring electronic toll payment for all drivers
- Diverting drivers who prepay their toll to a separate line on Mesa Street
- Installing barriers along Stanton’s side streets, such as the retractable bollards used by embassies
- Offering signage along Paisano to indicate the latest wait time to Juárez at Stanton
Other border communities with city-center crossings have taken steps to smooth the southbound commute.
Eagle Pass, Texas, has a dedicated southbound SENTRI lane on a bridge to Piedras Negras, Coahuila. The fast-pass lets frequent commuters, who submit to background checks and a pay a fee, access a dedicated lane.
In California, Calexico cones off southbound lanes ahead of weekday rush hours to accommodate significant commuter traffic to Mexicali, Baja California. U.S. and Mexican officials in August celebrated the start of a new border crossing called Otay Mesa II near San Diego with a toll that will rise and fall according to traffic conditions that officials say will guarantee an average wait time of 20 minutes.
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Providing better ‘customer service’
Researchers have found that long or unpredictable wait times to enter the U.S. hurt the binational economy. While research has often focused on the northbound dynamics, border crossers often take into account wait times in both directions before deciding how or whether to make their trip.
Alejandro Tavera has owned a store called Sexy Jeans on Stanton for 20 years, just north of Paisano. The street was empty of shoppers that Thursday in February; the rumble of idling motors and cacophony of horns filtered in through his doorway.
“My clients come in their cars, and with the traffic they can’t get to my shop,” he said. “Many people call me and say, ‘I tried, but I can’t get there.’ It hurts my business.”
Southbound traffic to Juarez has gotten heavier, more problematic
Binational commuter traffic has become problematic in the evenings.
Omar Ornelas, El Paso Times
El Paso has for years maintained a public-private partnership to fund overtime for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at area ports of entry to improve wait times for northbound traffic. A cost-benefit analysis by Texas A&M’s El Paso-based Center for International Intelligent Transportation Research Center found the partnership benefited the city economy.
CBP doesn’t conduct consistent southbound checks, although the agency’s infrastructure — including speed bumps and exit lane configurations — can play a role in southbound traffic patterns.
Berg said commuters and Downtown businesses have been asking for help for years.
“We have begged and pleaded and cajoled to convince city officials,” he said. “And I am telling you, nobody cares. They have done nothing. This problem has existed for years.”
Technology may provide some relief, eventually.
Tinajero, who has served in the bridges department for seven years and recently took over as interim director, said his department is looking for answers.
He said the city has finalized the scope of work for the traffic study, and the bridges department is coordinating with the city’s Capital Improvements Department for the next steps. He also said the city has received $18 million, and the Texas Department of Transportation has received $14 million, in state funding to develop “intelligent transportation systems” for the other two southbound bridges, at Zaragoza and Bridge of the Americas.
The “systems” could include additional cameras, wait time collection devices and improved public communication systems, he said.
Researchers at Texas A&M are also studying whether drone imagery could provide more accurate real-time wait times at border crossings.
“What we would like to do is provide better customer service,” Tinajero said. “We will be looking for potential solutions.”