WASHINGTON – Unless the federal government wrests land from 77 stubborn Rio Grande Valley residents in the next 10 days,all bets on the border fence are off,congressional investigators testified Thursday.
Even if that happens,the Department of Homeland Security will be racing against the clock and toward the outer limits of its budget to complete 670 miles of border fencing by the end of this year.
Slightly more than half the fencing,341 miles,was complete at the end of last month.
“If the goal is to have the fence constructed and up by the end of the year,that will be a challenge,” said Richard Stana,director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office. Though courts have consistently ruled for the department in land-seizure cases,scheduling court dates and determining property ownership has slowed construction.
The department began trucking concrete to the southwest border from as far away as Colorado when a Mexican contractor couldn't supply enough,Stana said,explaining the cost overrun. Labor costs have also soared as the department,in its rush to complete the remaining 329 miles of fencing before the end of the year,pays a premium for workers.
The design of the fence itself also changed drastically,boosting the cost per mile. Cost estimates were for a 10-foot steel fence,but the department built a 15-foot fence that was thicker than planned.
The government pays an average $7.5 million for each mile of fencing,nearly double the $4 million per mile figure the department originally estimated. Vehicle barriers cost an average $2.8 million per mile,up from $2 million. Members of the House Committee on Homeland Security criticized the department for the cost increase and construction delays.
“I was in business for a long time,and it seems to me this is really off the page,” said Rep. Bob Etheridge,D-N.C.,of the mounting costs.
The cost includes not only fencing or vehicle barriers but also environmental assessments,fence design and a parallel road used by border patrol agents,said Angela de Rocha,spokeswoman for Customs and Border Patrol,in an interview. If construction crews discover cultural artifacts,the cost of an archeological excavation is added.
Extremely expensive segments of the fence,such as the $16 million per mile portion cutting through Smuggler's Gulch in California,also raise the average cost,de Rocha said.
Congressional investigators testified they were concerned the department hadn't estimated how much the fence would cost to maintain.
Rep. Al Green,D-Texas,told the committee he would refer to border security as “BS” when he addressed the subject.
“I'm not sure if we've had a lot of BS,some BS or no BS at all,but we're clearly dealing with BS,” Green said,prompting laughter from the audience. “At some point,we have to take a look at how much BS we can stand.”