New York Times
September 10, 2008
The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday that cost overruns, legal obstacles and other problems were imperiling its goal of completing the 670 miles of fencing and technological improvements on the Southwest border that President Bush has promoted as vital to securing it.
Rising costs for construction and materials and delays in acquiring land from owners could foil the effort to build the fence by the end of the year, said officials, who are now seeking more money for the project.
The officials, speaking at a Congressional hearing and in interviews, brought to light the latest in a series of problems confronting the effort to more closely monitor the border and stop people from crossing it.
The department has 341 miles of new fencing in place along the 2,000-mile border. But completing the project, they said, hinges on redirecting $400 million in department funds, much of which requires Congressional approval, from other purposes. Even then, the department may have only agreed on contracts or partly built the rest of the fence by the end of the year.
Since 2005, Congress has appropriated $2.7 billion for the Secure Border Initiative, a combination of physical barriers and a so-called virtual fence, a highly promoted system of cameras and sensors.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report Wednesday that the Homeland Security Department had no projections for the total cost of building or maintaining the fencing.
The report said the average cost had risen this year to $7.5 million per mile for pedestrian barriers, typically large steel and mesh plates, and $2.8 million per mile for vehicle fencing, usually an array of short thick poles. February’s estimates were $4 million for pedestrian fencing and $2 million for vehicles.
W. Ralph Basham, the commissioner of the department’s Customs and Border Protection division, told lawmakers: “We are going to be out of business unless we get some relief. The operation will stop.”
At a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, officials also noted delays that have plagued the virtual fence, being developed with the Boeing Corporation. That project had already been bogged down by technical problems, but the accountability office report said that environmental reviews the department had not anticipated will now postpone the project.
The report said department lawyers had concluded that waivers used to bypass environmental laws to build the physical fence did not apply to the virtual one, meaning it will not be operational until early next year and only at limited parts of the border in Arizona. Jayson Ahern, the deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in an interview, however, that the technical problems and a shift of money to the physical fence accounted for the recent delays.
Members of Congress questioned the planning and management of border security efforts.
Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, the committee chairman, took aim at the delays of the virtual fence.
“The partnership between D.H.S. and Boeing has produced more missed deadlines and excuses than results,” he said.
Mr. Basham acknowledged that the projects had encountered complications. The escalating price of steel, among other costs, has driven up the price of the physical fence, he said.
The delays in the virtual fence, he said, are in keeping with recommendations from the committee and the G.A.O. not to put pieces of the project in place until they have been tested.
“If we move too fast and don’t test enough we are criticized,” Mr. Basham said. “Yet when we slow down to test we are criticized for not meeting our own goals and timelines.”