GAO: Border Costs Climbing the Fence

GAO: Border Costs Climbing the Fence

National Security  | Research & Analysis
Sep 10, 2008  | 2 min read

Federal watchdogs confirmed our suspicions today when they revealed that the cost of building a 600+ mile fence along our southern border has already doubled from estimates earlier this year. General Accounting Office analyst Richard Stana testified before the House Homeland Security Committee this morning that the average price of the pedestrian fencing completed thus far had climbed to $7.5 million per mile, though the Department of Homeland Security estimated the cost just six months ago at $4 million per mile.

Not surprising, as border fence costs have a history of surpassing expectations. The San Diego border fence ended up costing $10 million per mile—ten times the original estimate—and that was for a triple-layer fence with vehicle lanes (newer fences are single-layer). Contracts recently submitted for fence construction in Texas averaged between $10 and $15 million per mile. The average cost of vehicle barriers is up to $2.8 million per mile from the $2 million February estimate, according to the GAO.

DHS blamed the increase on pricey labor and materials. For example,

  • Higher fuel prices increase the cost of transporting materials such as cement and steel;
  • Competition for construction labor at the border is high due to a construction boom in Texas and a glut of Army Corps of Engineers projects;
  • Cement must be transported from Colorado reportedly because Cemex, a Mexican cement company that owns several U.S. distribution centers, refused to serve construction companies working on the fence. 

Remember that these figures cover only materials and construction, not the “life-cycle” estimate that includes maintaining the fence for years to come. Those costs could range from $300 to $1.7 billion per mile, depending on materials. DHS, which has been slow  to provide hard numbers, says it plans to have a life-cycle estimate by early 2009: In the meantime, it has requested $75 million for fence operation and maintenance in the 2009 budget.

DHS' tight deadline also inflates costs. The Secure Fence Act requires DHS to construct 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers by the end of this year, roughly half of which is complete. To pay the premium for turning projects around quickly, DHS said it would “reprogram” $400 million for fence construction.