April 27, 2008 in Nation/World

Border fence may miss deadline

Dave Montgomery McClatchy

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, which 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, multiyear 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.

Homeland Security 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 Homeland Security 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 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.

Fourteen Democratic members of Congress have joined the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club in asking the Supreme Court to hear their claim that the waivers are unconstitutional.

With 54 percent of the projects on private property, Homeland Security 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.

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