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 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 Friday, with about 275 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, who 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 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 sent to the border by Bush in 2006 to assist the Border Patrol.
For the remaining phase, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees construction from its offices in Fort Worth, Texas, has selected about two dozen contractors from an initial round of bidding. The contractors have been divided into smaller bidding pools 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.
DHS 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, 25 miles of pedestrian fencing in Arizona and New Mexico. A total of 174 miles of pedestrian fence remain to be built.