- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

Delays and cost overruns have threatened a scheduled end-of-year completion of a 670-mile security fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, while the House voted to deny Mexican truckers full access to U.S. highways.

The Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection division this week said an extra $400 million is needed to finish the fence on time. The shortfall is due to the rising costs of fuel and steel, as well as a labor shortage, the agency said.

“If we run out of money, unfortunately the construction will have to stop,” said CBP Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern.

As of August, the agency had predicted the project would be finished on time. It reported that 341 miles of fencing had been built, including 187 miles of fencing designed to inhibit pedestrian traffic and 154 miles of barriers to block vehicles.

The average cost of a mile of pedestrian fencing is $7.5 million — an increase of $3.5 million from February estimates, said a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative and auditing arm. Vehicle fencing now costs $2.8 million per mile, an $800,000 increase.

GAO officials told lawmakers at a House hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill that delays in land acquisition is another big problem. As of two weeks ago, 320 properties needed to build the fence hadn’t been acquired, and court dates for 77 landowners who are refusing to sell hadn’t been scheduled, said Richard Stana, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues.

“Ultimately the delays could adversely affect the Border Patrol’s efforts to secure the (Mexican) border,” Mr. Stana said.

He added that completion of the fence by the year’s end “is in jeopardy” if issues related to land acquisition aren’t resolved within the next three weeks.

Congress has appropriated about $2.7 billion for the project since 2006, the GAO said. And the Department of Homeland Security has asked for another $775 million for fiscal year 2009, which be begins Oct. 1.

CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham said at the hearing his agency has done all it could to complete the project on time, and defended it against what he said were unfair and unfounded attacks by some lawmakers.

“We did not, nor will not, rush to deploy something that is not ready just to meet our deadline, or anyone else’s,” Mr. Basham said.

Meanwhile, the House late Tuesday defied a White House veto threat and voted 395-18 to reverse a decision by the Transportation Department to continue a pilot program that gives a limited number of Mexican-based trucking companies access to U.S. roads. The program, which also gives U.S. companies access to Mexican highways, began last year as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The program will continue for now, as the Senate has yet to schedule a vote on the issue. The chamber last year voted to cut funding for the program, but the Bush administration argued the law was ambiguous and kept the border open.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington said it was “deeply concerned” about the House vote and welcomed the administration’s intention to veto the measure.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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