Construction crews install bollard-style panels for the new border fence in Nogales. Ariz., near the Mariposa Port of Entry. JILL TORRANCE / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

NOGALES - The border in Nogales is getting a face-lift that Border Patrol officials say will make it harder on smugglers and keep agents safer.

The agency is replacing 2.8 miles of landing-mat fence erected in 1994 with new, 18- to 30-feet-high bollard-style fencing that is both menacing and functional.

The new fence is much taller and sturdier than the old one. The most noticeable change may be that agents can see through it into Mexico. The square bollards are set apart far enough to see through but not far enough for people to squeeze through.

"You couldn't see what was approaching the (old) fence or what was hiding on the south side," said Sabri Dickman, the Border Patrol's acting patrol agent in charge of the Nogales station. "We had a lot of assaults on our agents. With the new bollard fencing, we have the ability to see what approaches."

Granite Construction is doing the work under an $11.6 million contract that comes from funds redirected from the SBInet "virtual fence" program, which was canceled in January by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Work began in late March and is expected to be complete by July.

While the new fence will be a thing of beauty for the Border Patrol, not all residents in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, like what they see.

"Each country is free to do as it wishes within its own state, but the Mexican government will never be in agreement with a metal border fence," Jesús Quintanar, an engineer with the Mexico section of the International Boundary and Water Commission said in Spanish. "The last fence looked very ugly, and this one doesn't have any beauty either."

The new fence is definitely on U.S. soil, though, Quintanar said. He and members of the U.S. side of the commission did a formal marking of the international line in February before work began and have been monitoring construction.

The Nogales project is the first major border-fence construction in Arizona since the building boom of 2007-2009 came to a close. The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector has 71 miles of pedestrian fence, up from 11 miles in 2000. There are another 183 miles of vehicle barriers, up from two miles in 2000.

Pedestrian fences are 12- to 18-foot-high barriers designed to stop people, or at least slow them down. Vehicle barriers are waist- to chest-high.

The Border Patrol plans to replace sections of landing-mat fence in Douglas and Naco, too, though no plans are in place, Dickman said. The old landing-mat fences were erected in mostly urban stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border during the mid-1990s by Border Patrol agents and Department of Defense soldiers using surplus government materials.

"It served its purpose, but it's outdated," Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame said of the old fence. "This is the fence that needs to be in place to keep up with the evolution of border-security issues."

The newer fencing has been erected with new materials by construction companies paid millions by the federal government. The government spent $2.4 billion to build 264 miles of pedestrian fencing and 226 miles of vehicle barriers in the years 2004-2009, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2009.

At $4.14 million per mile, the Nogales fence-replacement project will cost just slightly more than average for modern fences. The average cost of 140 miles of pedestrian fencing put up under the Secure Border Initiative in 2005-2008 was $3.9 million per mile, with costs ranging from $400,000 to $15.1 million a mile, a 2009 GAO report found.

It will cost an estimated $6.5 billion to "deploy, operate and maintain" the fencing over its estimated life cycle of 20 years, a March 2011 GAO report found. For instance, it cost $7.2 million to repair 4,037 documented breaches to the fence in fiscal year 2010, the report said.

The height of the new fencing in Nogales will range from 18 to 30 feet depending on the terrain, Dickman said. It will stretch from west of the Mariposa Port of Entry to east of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry.

Granite Construction crews have begun working at the east and west ends and will work toward the center, said Mike Tatusko, project executive with Granite. Granite, which has its headquarters in Watsonville, Calif., has built more than 130 miles of border pedestrian fence and vehicle barriers, he said.

With concrete footers 6 to 8 feet deep, the fence should prevent some burrowing and make it more difficult to build tunnels, Dickman said. The old landing-mat fence didn't have any footer, and smugglers regularly burrowed beneath it.

All but one of the 103 assaults on Border Patrol agents since Oct. 1 in the Border Patrol's Nogales station have occurred within the 2.8-mile stretch of border in Nogales where the fence is being replaced, Adame said.

Smugglers commonly dispatched several men to throw rocks at agents as a group of three or four illegal immigrants scaled the fence and got past agents, Adame said. With the new see-through fence, agents will know ahead of time if rock-throwers are nearby.

The new fencing will also allow the Border Patrol to move more agents into remote areas east and west of Nogales because it won't require as many agents in the city, Dickman said.

The Border Patrol knows the new fence won't stop all illegal entries on its own, but it sure helps, Dickman said.

"It gives us time to get agents in front of them and deter the entry or make the arrest once they do enter," he said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or