By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008
The Bush administration is unlikely to complete 670 miles of border fence by year-end as required by Congress because of surging construction costs and problems acquiring private land along the border with Mexico, Homeland Security Department officials acknowledged yesterday.
The department had completed 344 miles of fencing as of Aug. 29, about half its goal, congressional investigators reported. It has yet to acquire 320 parcels of land because of delayed court proceedings and disputes with private owners, mostly in Texas, officials said.
Administration officials also contended that they are running out of money. Costs for vehicle barriers have climbed 40 percent since February, to $2.8 million a mile, and 75 percent for pedestrian fencing, to $7.5 million a mile. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials did not provide details but said the $3.5 billion Secure Border Initiative faces a $400 million cost overrun.
Barring action by Congress, "we're out of money and operations will stop," border protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Even with money and legal approvals, Basham testified, he expects only for construction to be underway or contracts to be awarded for the full project by the year's end. That would fall short of completion as required by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The project also faces potential environmental, construction and historic preservation delays.
Although Bush officials once resisted calls for more fencing -- calling it costlier and less effective than other approaches to attacking illegal immigration -- officials this week sought to put the burden of future delays on the Democratic-led Congress, which they say must approve more money for the project.
In a letter Tuesday, Elaine C. Duke, homeland security undersecretary for management, asked lawmakers for permission to redirect $140 million to the fence.
The money can be taken from other department efforts, including adding Border Patrol agents and improving port and border screening, both of which have seen delays in hiring personnel, Duke said.
The rest of the $400 million gap will be plugged by further scaling back plans to deploy tower-mounted sensors, surveillance equipment and other technology on the border under the department's "virtual fence" initiative, said border control spokesman Michael Friel.
Although nearly $1 billion has been awarded to Boeing, the contractor on SBInet, as the virtual fence project is known, initial goals have shrunk from deploying technology to all 6,000 miles of land border with Canada and Mexico to a series of pilot efforts near Tucson next year, congressional auditors said.
Basham's deputy, Jayson P. Ahern, said the department "made the conscious decision" to sacrifice other goals.
"We did make the determination that the priority of our department was to go ahead and put in the tactical infrastructure," Ahern said.
In a statement, Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, said he was reviewing the department's funding request "to be sure that CBP is being a wise steward of taxpayer dollars" and "is not robbing Peter to pay Paul."