Associated Press / The Monitor
August 22, 2008
By Christopher Sherman
McALLEN -- Soaring construction costs for the border fence have apparently forced the Department of Homeland Security to bend for the first time on its end-of-year completion deadline.
The agency has offered a South Texas county until March 31, 2009 to finish its longest segment of the combined levee and border wall, hoping that the move will keep costs in check, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Congress mandated that 670 miles of vehicle and pedestrian barriers be in place along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2008. Homeland Security has used that looming deadline to justify the waiver of dozens of environmental regulations in April and repeatedly to explain in federal court the quick filing of condemnation lawsuits against hesitant owners of land in the fence's path.
But Dannenbaum Engineering Co., the firm overseeing the modification of about 20 miles of levees into concrete walls in Hidalgo County, states in an Aug. 18 letter that Homeland Security offered more time after all bids for one segment came back too high.
"DHS has allowed an extension for completion of this project," the letter to the county's drainage district said. "Original date for completion was December 31, 2008. New date for completion is March 31, 2009."
The letter concludes, "We believe that these measures may possibly allow for a more cost effective project."
Barry Morrissey, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the arm of DHS handling the border fence, said the agency is still working toward a year-end deadline.
"No formal decision has been made by Customs and Border Protection to change the targeted completion date for the project in question," Morrissey wrote in an e-mail Thursday. "We understand Hidalgo County may be exploring options for cost savings (as is CBP). But we remain committed to completing our goals by the end of the calendar year."
A day earlier, Morrissey said he was aware of conversations about finding savings by extending deadlines, but knew of no final decision.
"The costs have risen just dramatically since the start of this thing," Morrissey said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff came to Hidalgo County in February to announce a major compromise that would combine the county's need for improved levees with the agency's plans for a border fence. The river side of the levees would be scraped away and replaced with a sheer concrete wall 15 to 18-feet tall.
Most significantly, the project could be built within the existing levee right-of-way rather than through private land.
The 4.35-mile segment in western Hidalgo County discussed in the letter is set to be re-advertised Sunday. This time it will be split into two smaller pieces, said Godfrey Garza, district manager of the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, which is overseeing the project.
Officials hope the extension will let them spread out their demand for steel, concrete and labor - the project's main ingredients. "Then that premium should come down," Garza said.
The county is paying for the levee improvement portion of the project and Homeland Security is covering the border wall.
This week, the county also approved changes in the original $21.4 million contract for a 1.76-mile levee segment under construction in an attempt to keep pace with rising material costs.
Change orders to the contract show that prices per cubic yard to build elements of the retaining wall have increased between seven and 23 percent since it was awarded July 1. The county drainage district will provide more "in-kind" work to keep it within budget, Garza said.
The cost of typical border fence sections is about $2 million to $3 million per mile, but the government recently began a 3 1/2-mile segment in San Diego that will cost about $16 million per mile due to terrain. As of July 11, the government had completed 182 miles of pedestrian fence and 153 miles of vehicle barriers along the border.
Perry Vaughn, executive director of the Rio Grande Valley chapter of Associated General Contractors of America, said the cost of concrete, steel and diesel fuel are expected to rise another six to eight percent by the end of the year.
"It's very difficult to tie down suppliers for an extended length of time," Vaughn said. When contractors make their bid for a project they know the price of the materials could change one day to the next, so a project such as the border fence that will take months to complete, presents challenges, he said.
From December 2003 to June 2008, concrete, steel and diesel increased 36 percent, 122 percent and 329 percent, respectively, Vaughn said.
The Hidalgo County project costs played a role in the announcement earlier this week that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had rejected neighboring Cameron County's proposal for a similar combined levee and border wall.
In a letter to the county, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham cited cost as one factor in the decision.
"Based on our recent experience in Hidalgo County, we estimate that the cost of a similar project in your area would exceed the cost of CBP's standard fence design," the letter said.