Saturday, September 19, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
Border Waste Reruns
Volume XIV No. 38: September 18, 2009
Jimmy Buffet could have testified at this week’s hearing about ongoing federal border protection initiatives. As you watched the same old song and dance about Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending commence before lawmakers, you could almost hear him sing: “Wasting away again on the border wall. Searching for the lost section of fence. Some people say that Boeing’s to blame, but I know – it’s our own damn fault.”
With the benefit of updated numbers and dates, the House Homeland Security Committee learned that seven years and more than $4 billion in, DHS’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI) is (still) broken. SBI is comprised of a system of cameras and sensors known as SBINet and a steel “pedestrian” fence erected on more than 600 miles of the southwestern U.S. border.
Lawmakers heard an all too familiar tale of waste and woe. The average cost of pedestrian fencing has jumped from $3.5 to $6.5 million per mile, and costs for vehicle fencing have doubled. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the sensors used in the SBINet system still suffer from too many false detections and are vulnerable to bad weather despite the fact that the military has effectively used camera and sensor technology to track enemy movements for years at a much lower cost. But it didn’t stop there, the sad song continued:
Full deployment of SBINet is now projected for 2016—seven years after the original contract with Boeing was scheduled to end;
The pedestrian fence has been breached more than 3,000 times so far, with each repair costing at least $1,300;
A long-overdue DHS study estimates the costs of maintaining the fence over a 20-year period at $6.5 billion— which is likely a low ball.
Sadly, even the new price tag may not tell the whole story. As our analysis of fence costs points out, maintenance estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put that figure at $8 billion years ago, before the same labor and materials price hikes that have bumped up the cost of fence construction.
Problems with SBINet are due in large part to a contract that even a Boeing spokesman admitted was “awkward.” That’s a bit of an understatement: The delays and cost overruns have made the project a poster child for problems with “lead systems integrator” contracting strategy, where one company acts as a “system integrator” that tries to cobble together several different projects completed at different times and with different subcontractors. Incredibly, DHS just renewed Boeing’s contract for another year, despite a string of failures that has dogged the contract almost since its 2006 inception.
The fundamental question, of course, is whether the fence actually works. The unfortunate answers range between “no” and “not sure”. Because the SBINet technology still isn’t functional, border patrol agents are forced to work with outdated and ineffective technology, decreasing the border’s effectiveness. And the border patrol hasn’t yet created a way to quantitatively measure whether or not the pedestrian fence is actually keeping people out. The number of people caught trying to cross the border actually declined in several sectors before the fence went up, showing only that those numbers are influenced by factors other than the existence of a 14-foot steel wall.
Like too many expensive national security projects, Congressional commitments to the border fence were made in a fiscal vacuum. Yet Senators exacerbated irresponsible spending by inserting a requirement that would add another 300 miles of pedestrian fence at a cost of some $40 billion. Even though they’ve seen this one before, maybe lawmakers should review the hearing transcript: When asked whether the American taxpayer had benefitted from spending on SBI, the GAO analyst replied with an unequivocal “No.”
Let us know what you think.