WASHINGTON -- At a cost of up to $4 million a mile, the concrete and steel fence rising along the Southwest border constitutes one of the most ambitious public works projects in years, encompassing legions of federal bureaucrats and a lineup of blue-ribbon contractors.
But as it slices through forbidding terrain, tribal lands, private property and sensitive wildlife habitats, the barrier faces its own towering wall of challenges, raising doubt that the projected 670 miles of pedestrian fences and vehicle barriers will be in place when the Bush administration comes to an end in January.
Facing a deadline of Dec. 31, the Department of Homeland Security was over halfway to its goal as of Friday, with just under 300 miles awaiting construction. A companion element to the physical barriers -- a so-called virtual wall of radar, cameras and sensors -- faces uncertainty after developing technical problems in a test project.
"That's an awful lot to do in a eight months of time," said Richard Stana of the Government Accountability Office, who investigates the project for Congress. "I don't think it's on the scale of the Great Wall of China, but ... to get it done right, to get it done on time, it's going to take a great deal of effort to have things fall together."
Ambitious goals The goal includes 135 miles of vehicle and pedestrian fencing that was already in place when the administration launched its Secure Border Initiative in November 2005 in a multibillion-dollar, multiyear assault to fortify the border and curtail illegal immigration.
Since then, nearly 100 miles of 15- to 18-foot-high fencing and more than 140 miles of vehicle barriers have been built in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Much of the construction was done by National Guard personnel whom President Bush dispatched to the border in 2006 to assist the Border Patrol.
For the remaining phase, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing construction from its offices in Fort Worth, has selected just over two dozen contractors from an initial round of bidding. The contractors have been divided into smaller bidding pools -- with three or four in each pool -- to compete for task orders totaling $3.4 billion to build specific segments of the fence.
By design, some of the contractors are minority-owned or come from economically depressed areas. Others are giants of the industry. Sundt Construction, based in Phoenix, was founded in 1890 by a Norwegian immigrant and later earned fame for building the top-secret town of Los Alamos, N.M. -- the birthplace of the first atom bomb -- and for relocating the London Bridge to Arizona.
DHS officials say the project is on schedule but acknowledge the challenges. As of last week, only six task orders, valued at $91.6 million, had been awarded for 25 miles of fencing in Arizona and New Mexico.
Numerous obstacles Obstacles facing the DHS reach well beyond the engineering challenges of stretching fences across arid desert, granite outcroppings and hostile mountain ranges. The undertaking has been mired in controversy since it was mandated by Congress in 2006. It now faces a multistate coalition of opponents, as well as legal challenges that could lead to a hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court.
A total of 131 miles of fence planned for Texas has been stalled by legal action and protests by political leaders and landowners in South Texas. One defiant holdout was Eloisa Tamez of El Calaboz, near Brownsville, who lost a court battle against granting government access to 3 acres that her family has owned since it was awarded by the king of Spain in 1767.
"It's not that we're for illegal immigration," she said, "but if the whole government can't take care of that issue, how is my little piece of land going to have an effect?"
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, exercising his authority under the REAL ID Act of 2005, has waived compliance with 36 laws -- including environmental statutes -- to speed past the regulatory roadblocks that threatened to further delay construction. He told Congress that it would be "impossible to come close" to the 670-mile goal without taking that step.
Although the Cabinet secretary has pledged that his department would continue to work with communities on environmental protections, the waivers generated a fierce blowback from environmentalists and their allies. Fourteen Democratic members of Congress, including eight committee leaders, have joined Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club in asking the Supreme Court to hear their claim that the waivers are unconstitutional.
The justices could make a decision within the next few weeks on whether to review the case, but a hearing wouldn't be likely before the court's next term, which begins in October. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., one of the lawmakers challenging the waivers, plans hearings in Brownsville on Monday to underscore public opposition to Chertoff's decision.
Wrangling over property With 54 percent of the projects on private property, DHS says it met with more than 600 property owners in an attempt to smooth the way for fence construction. But DHS has also gone to court against holdouts, filing 86 condemnation suits to gain access to land in Texas, California and New Mexico. One included a high-profile case against Eagle Pass.
In all but eight cases, property owners either agreed to make their land available or were ordered to do so by the court, according to the Justice Department. Two families in Los Ebanos, a small community in Texas' Hidalgo County, have filed an appeal with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenging a lower-court decision favoring the DHS.
The department has estimated that its Secure Border Initiative, including the fence and the high-tech virtual wall, will cost $7.6 billion from 2007 to 2011. Since 2007, Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion and is being asked to approve $775 million for fiscal 2009.
But Stana, the GAO's director of homeland security and justice, said in a February report that SBI officials "are unable to estimate the total cost of pedestrian and vehicle fencing because they do not yet know the type of terrain where the fencing is to be constructed, the materials to be used or the cost to acquire the land."
Managers of the SBI program estimate construction costs at $4 million per mile for pedestrian fencing and $2 million per mile for vehicle barriers. Stana, however, said total costs "will be higher" because the estimate does not include other expenses, such as contract management, higher-than-expected acquisition costs, incentive costs to meet an expedited schedule and the unforeseen costs of working in remote areas.
Fort Worth tie-in The command post for fence construction is in Fort Worth, where supervisors with the Corps of Engineers direct operations in all four states. More than 200 corps officials nationwide, many with specific areas of expertise, have also been drawn into the project.
"We're leveraging corps resources nationwide," said Todd Smith, project manager for the pedestrian fence, which in corps parlance is entitled PF225. Kevin DaVee is the Fort Worth-based project manager for the vehicle fence, VF300.
The goal is to erect a total of 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle fencing, including the sections that were in place before SBI. Planners envision 72 segments of pedestrian fence, most of which will be about five miles or less. Steel mesh or bollards -- tall posts rooted into the ground -- are the choice for PF225, while the Normandy barriers or rails welded to posts are being used for the vehicle barriers.
As outlined by Chertoff, the DHS plans to have fencing along about 30 percent of the 2,000-mile Southwestern border, largely in populated areas where illegal crossers can quickly blend in.
Natural barriers -- such as mountains and the Rio Grande -- will protect large sections of unfenced areas, said Chertoff. Despite problems with the virtual fence, known as SBInet, planners still hope to deploy cameras, radar and sensors in predominately rural areas to compliment the physical barriers.