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 April 25, with just under 300 miles awaiting construction. A companion element to the physical barriers — a so-called virtual wall of radars, cameras and sensors — faces uncertainty after developing worrisome technical problems in a test project.
"That's an awful lot to do in eight months of time," said Richard M. 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."
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, multi-year assault to fortify the border and halt 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 dispatched to the border by Bush in 2006 to assist the Border Patrol.
For the remaining phase, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing construction from its offices in Fort Worth, Texas, 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 atom bomb — and for relocating the London Bridge to Arizona.
Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., headquartered in Omaha, Neb., describes itself as a construction heavyweight that has built everything from tunnels to high rises. California-based Granite Construction has erected billions of dollars of infrastructure across the country and has projects underway in more than 25 states.
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 the remainder of the project, for 25 miles of pedestrian fencing in Arizona and New Mexico. A total of 174 miles of pedestrian fence remain to be built.
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 multi-state coalition of opponents, as well as legal challenges that could lead to a hearing before 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.
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 Chertoff has pledged that his department would continue to work with communities on environmental protections, the waivers generated a fierce blow-back from environmentalists and their allies. Fourteen Democratic members of Congress, including eight committee leaders, have joined the 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 until the court's next term, which begins in October.
With 54 percent of the projects on private property, DHS officials say they met with more than 600 property owners in an attempt to smooth the way for fence construction. But they have also gone to court against holdouts, filing 86 condemnation suits to gain access to land in Texas, California and New Mexico.
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 5th 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 Secure Border Initiative 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."
Secure Border Initiative managers 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.
Congress has authorized $1.2 billion for the remainder of fiscal 2008, which ends in October, but the GAO has blocked the release of $650 million because DHS gave Congress an incomplete expenditure plan for the fence. Lawmakers required the plan as a condition for releasing the money.
Progress on the border fence as of April 25
Goal: 370 miles
Complete: 174 miles
Goal: 300 Miles
Complete: 200 miles
Goal: 670 miles
Complete: 374 miles
Remaining: 296 miles