TIJUANA — Rebuild a rail link between Baja California and San Diego. Open a new commercial crossing at Otay Mesa. Resume planning for the Punta Colonet mega-port south of Ensenada.
Such projects aimed at further connecting Baja California with San Diego and locations far beyond are key to the state’s economic future, said the man slated to become its next governor.
Francisco “Kiko” Vega de Lamadrid, 58, is scheduled to launch his six-year term on Nov. 1. He sat down Thursday with U-T San Diego to share his economic vision for his state of 3.3 million people.
Vega will become the sixth consecutive member of Mexico’s National Action Party to govern Baja California since 1989. A businessman with investments in construction and real estate, he has also forged a long political career — state finance secretary, Tijuana mayor and federal legislator.
“I am a businessman who is involved in politics,” Vega said, adding that business experience will give him insights for his gubernatorial leadership.
“We live in a (binational) region where we are heavily dependent on each other,” he said. “We have families, friendships. We conduct a lot of business in Southern California, and vice versa.”
Vega has residences on both sides of the border — one in Tijuana, the other in the Eastlake area of Chula Vista. He recently married Brenda Ruacho, a former Chula Vista resident who ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for a seat on the Chula Vista Elementary School District board.
Vega will take over from José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, an economist who led Baja California through a difficult six-year period during which the state suffered from the global economic downturn, heightened drug violence and drops in tourism and foreign investment.
High-impact crimes are currently down, and in the past couple of years, the state’s economy has been bouncing back, said Wilfrido Ruíz, a researcher at the think tank Colegio de la Frontera Norte. But unemployment continues to be an issue, Ruiz said, with recently released statistics showing the official unemployment rate of 6.14 percent — high for a state that a decade ago had some of the lowest rates in Mexico, close to 1 percent.
People older than 40 are having the hardest time finding employment, Vega said, and he proposes to establish a fund in support of small businesses that employ older workers. He also wants to boost future opportunities for the state’s youngest residents by including mandatory English and computer classes in all of Baja California’s elementary schools.
Vega said his blueprint for making Baja California more competitive involves five pillars: transparency, accountability, cutting government red tape, expanding the state’s high-tech capabilities and improving its infrastructure.
“I am going to be a governor who is active in promoting” the state, Vega said. “But you need to resolve many of these issues, to create conditions that are good for investment.”
Here’s a look at some of his top issues and projects:
Rail link: Vega pledges to push ahead on a cross-border rail link to Tijuana’s maquiladora industry that would connect to California through Tecate. A U.S. group, Pacific Imperial Railroad, holds a 50-year lease from San Diego Metropolitan Transit System to revitalize the 70-mile stretch between Campo and Plaster City. A Mexican group, Baja California Railroad, holds a 30-year contract with Baja California’s Admicarga agency to operate the 44.4-mile line between Tijuana and Tecate.
“This is a project that has to happen,” said Vega, who intends to seek an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican groups. “We all need to understand that the state has to move forward and continue its development.”
Otay Mesa East Commercial Crossing: “This is a priority project for this administration,” Vega said of the new port of entry for trucks being planned on both sides of the border. During his mayoral term from 1998 to 2001, Vega secured a 98-acre plot for the project on the Mexican side. And as governor, he said, he will push for completion of the crossing. “I hope that next year, we’ll be able to begin construction,” Vega said. “It will bring a lot of benefits.”
Cross-border airport bridge: Vega said the planned pedestrian bridge between A.L. Rodríguez International Airport and Otay Mesa “is an important project,” but one that has “to give us the benefit that everyone comes out ahead.” Vega also said he wants to make sure the bridge won’t adversely affect Tijuana businesses that cater to cross-border travelers, such as taxis, buses and airport shops.
Ensenada projects: The incoming governor said the construction of a small airport to serve both cargo and passenger traffic in Ensenada “is a project that must start as soon as possible.” Plans call for joint public and private financing, he said.
Vega also backs the revival of plans for building the Punta Colonet mega-port south of Ensenada. The container port was conceived more than a decade ago, during a time of booming trade, as part of a $5 billion rail-and-seaport project that could absorb overflows from the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. But with the decline in trans-Pacific trade, there has been no advancement in recent years. “It’s not a project that’s going to start tomorrow,” Vega said. “We must give it continuity; it’s a project that’s going to take time.”
California office: Vega is proposing that California and Baja California open a joint office “in a strategic location of California,” perhaps Los Angeles, and has reached out to Gov. Jerry Brown to discuss the possibility. That office could look at ways to conduct joint tourism promotions, such as increasing cruise ship traffic. It could also address a range of other bilateral issues. “There are situations that need addressing, not just on the economic level,” Vega said. He cited examples such as border security and deportations of Mexicans to Baja California.
Tourism: Vega said medical tourism “is one of the great opportunities” for Baja California. He also sees convention tourism as an area for future growth, partly because the Baja California Center opened this year in Rosarito Beach. To give event coordinators a boost, he is proposing to lower or eliminate the state tax on shows and performances.
Value-added tax: Vega is joining Baja California’s business sector in opposing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed tax reforms, which would raise the sales tax in Baja California by 5 percentage points, to the national rate of 16 percent, and eliminate the tax exemption for maquiladora imports. Mexico’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies are expected to vote this month on the measures, which would go into effect Jan. 1.