Secure Border Initiative Fence Construction Costs

GAO-09-244R: Published: Jan 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2009.

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Richard M. Stana
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Much of the United States' 6,000 miles of international borders with Canada and Mexico remains vulnerable to illegal entry of aliens, criminals, and cargo. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehends hundreds of thousands of people and seizes large volumes of cargo entering the country illegally each year; however, several hundreds of thousands of individuals and an unknown volume of contraband also enter the United States illegally and undetected. DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the agency responsible for securing the nation's borders along and between ports of entry. In November 2005, DHS announced the launch of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a multiyear, multibillion-dollar program aimed at securing U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration. CBP's SBI program office is responsible for managing the SBI program and for developing a comprehensive border protection system. This system has two main components: SBInet, which employs radars, sensors, and cameras to detect, identify, and classify the threat level associated with an illegal entry into the United States between the ports of entry, and SBI tactical infrastructure (TI), fencing, roads, and lighting intended to enhance U.S. Border Patrol agents' ability to respond to the area of the illegal entry and bring the situation to a law enforcement resolution (i.e., arrest). The current focus of the SBI program is on the southwest border areas between ports of entry that CBP has designated as having the highest need for enhanced border security because of serious vulnerabilities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, required DHS to complete construction by December 31, 2008, of either 370 miles or other mileage determined by the Secretary, of reinforced fencing along the southwest border wherever the Secretary determines it would be most practical and effective in deterring smugglers and aliens attempting illegal entry. DHS set a goal to complete approximately 670 miles of fencing by December 31, 2008. In September 2008, we testified that SBI fencing project costs were increasing and land acquisition issues posed a challenge to DHS in meeting its goal to have about 670 miles of fencing completed by December 31, 2008. Also in September 2008, DHS revised its goal such that it planned to have these miles either built, under construction, or under contract by December 31, 2008. In December 2008, DHS reported that it planned to complete all but one of the fence projects by March 2009. As directed by the Explanatory Statement accompanying the fiscal year 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, we examined the costs of constructing fencing along the southern border of the United States. This report addresses the following questions: (1) What were the construction costs of primary pedestrian and vehicle fencing miles completed under the SBI program as of September 30, 2007, and October 31, 2008? (2) What were the construction costs of secondary pedestrian fencing completed along existing primary fencing as of October 31, 2008? (3) If appropriated SBI funds from fiscal years 2007 and 2008 that were allocated for SBInet had been used to construct fencing, how many additional miles of pedestrian or vehicle fencing could have been constructed?

CBP had completed about 73 miles of primary SBI fencing costing approximately $198 million as of September 30, 2007, and about 215 miles of fencing costing about $625 million as of October 31, 2008. Seventy-one of the miles completed as of September 30, 2007, were pedestrian fencing completed at costs ranging from $400,000 to $4.8 million per mile and averaging $2.8 million per mile. CBP had also finished about 2 miles of vehicle fencing at a cost of $2.8 million. Pedestrian fencing accounted for 140 of the miles that CBP had completed as of October 31, 2008, with costs ranging from $400,000 to $15.1 million per mile for an average of $3.9 million per mile. Seventy-five of the miles were vehicle fencing and costs ranged from $200,000 to $1.8 million per mile, averaging $1.0 million per mile. The per mile costs to build the fencing varied considerably because of the type of fencing, topography, materials used, land acquisition costs, and labor costs, among other things. As of October 31, 2008, CBP reported that approximately 32 miles of secondary fence existed along the southwest border and about 18 of those miles had an average construction cost of $2 million per mile. CBP officials said that they do not have cost information for the remaining miles because they were constructed by the International Boundary and Water Commission. In addition, CBP had obligated $58 million of fiscal year 2008 funding on a 3.5-mile secondary fencing project in the San Diego sector that is scheduled to be completed in calendar year 2009. If the approximately $393 million in appropriated SBI funds from fiscal years 2007 and 2008 that were allocated for SBInet had been used to construct fencing, depending on the operational needs of the Border Patrol and a number of assumptions that were discussed above, we estimate that CBP could have built about 73 miles of additional pedestrian fencing or about 232 miles of additional vehicle fencing. Alternatively, depending on the operational needs of the Border Patrol, CBP could have constructed a mix of additional pedestrian and vehicle fencing. For example, if the additional funding had been divided equally between pedestrian and vehicle fencing in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, CBP could have constructed 36 miles of pedestrian and 116 miles of vehicle fencing. However, these estimates are approximate, and depending on actual costs at the time, more or less fencing could have been built, particularly taking into account the complexities of fence construction, specifically, increased material costs, a short supply of labor, and a compressed schedule to complete fence construction projects.

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