Sunday, February 8, 2009

Finishing the fence: Construction is more expensive and complicated than first estimated

February 8, 2009
The Monitor
By Jeremy Roebuck

It all comes down to the Rio Grande Valley.

More than a month after the scheduled completion of 670 miles of security fencing across the country's southwest border, nearly
70 miles remain unfinished — almost all of it in South Texas.

And while plans are moving forward, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says building the fence here has been more challenging, more expensive and more time-consuming than originally thought.

"We've run into several obstacles — whether they be logistical or problems with land acquisition," said Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "But we're continuing to follow what we've started."

As of Jan. 23, contractors had completed 601 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of West Texas.

But despite the recent completion of nearly 16 miles in Hidalgo County, the remaining segments set to go up in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties have hit various snags.

Unlike other states where borderlands are largely publicly owned, Texas' southern extremes are divvied among private landowners. The hodgepodge of ownership rights has forced the federal government to take dozens of individuals to court to seize the necessary land. Many of those cases remain unresolved.

In Starr County, concerns that the barrier could pose a flooding risk in the event of heavy rains have prompted a review of engineering specifications. Some have called for a barrier that could be removed if needed to aid water flow.

And in a report issued in September, Homeland Security estimated costs for South Texas construction could rise because of the high price of gas, labor and construction materials here.

Some of those costs — such as gas — have dropped sharply in the intervening months, said spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. But because several contracts were awarded during the bubble, the government is locked into paying higher rates.


The segments of pedestrian fencing completed across the Southwest border by Oct. 31 cost an average of $3.9 million per mile, according to a report issued last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office — $1.7 million more per mile than Congress had originally projected.

Although no official estimates are available for Rio Grande Valley fencing, the almost complete Hidalgo County hybrid levee-wall project will cost somewhere near $9.5 million per mile — a $3.9 million-per-mile increase from initial estimates, according to county statistics.

Contractors expect to finish the project — which combines the mandated border barrier with needed levee enhancements — by the end of the month.

Cameron County unsuccessfully lobbied for a similar hybrid levee-wall project but the federal government has opted to move forward with more traditional fencing there. So far, contracts have been awarded for its 11 planned segments and construction could begin as soon as next week, Easterling said.

In Starr County, where Homeland Security still has not produced a final engineering plan for nearly 13 miles of fencing slated to go up, officials have learned to stop asking questions, County Judge Eloy Vera said.

"We're hoping it gets delayed permanently," he said. "We're playing possum for now and hope they just forget about us."


Fence critics like Vera had hoped the election of President Barack Obama would signal a change in their political fortunes. Some even grasped at the hope that the new administration would halt construction.

While the president voted for the fence as a senator, he expressed doubts about its effectiveness while on the campaign trail. Once elected, Obama quickly selected then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a once vocal detractor of the plan, to head his Homeland Security Department.

But neither has said much of anything since taking office. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Napolitano even said she could see a role for fencing around urban areas.

"It helps prevent those who are crossing illegally from blending immediately into a town population," she told senators.


Despite continued controversy in the Valley, Homeland Security spokesman Easterling says the project has already proved effective in reducing illegal immigration in other parts of the country. The fence has worked as one weapon in an arsenal of strategies that helped reduce immigrant apprehensions nationwide by 18.4 percent between fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

U.S. Border Patrol agents reported declines as high as 78 percent in sectors such as western Arizona and 60 percent for far West Texas and New Mexico, where fencing segments have been up long enough to have had an impact on immigrant crossings.

But the Rio Grande Valley Sector — which stretches from western Starr County to the Gulf of Mexico — was one of only two border regions to report an increase in apprehensions last year. The other was San Diego.

The Border Patrol uses apprehension rates as a rough gauge of effectiveness for border security policies. However, the numbers can paint a skewed picture. A lower apprehension rate could just as easily mean more immigrants are slipping past agents.

Fence critics say the Valley's 2.8 percent increase in apprehensions proves illegal crossers have shifted their routes to stretches of border with fewer obstacles.

The areas with the sharpest declines in apprehensions are those employing several successful security strategies, including increased Border Patrol presence and harsh policies promising federal prosecution for all illegal crossers.

"It's hard to give the fence all the credit," Easterling said. "It's not just any one thing. It's the right mix."

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