Border Patrol agents check traffic coming through a checkpoint on Arizona 83 north of Sonoita. The agency will upgrade a checkpoint on Arizona 90, north of Sierra Vista, to make it more of a fixed structure.

The Border Patrol's checkpoint north of Sierra Vista on Arizona 90 is being upgraded in a $870,000 project that will make it the second semi-permanent checkpoint in the state.

When finished in mid-January, the new facility will have a 65-foot-long canopy covering two inspection lanes - a substantial improvement over the one lane, uncovered facility that has been in place for years, said Border Patrol spokesman Steven Passement.

The upgrade will benefit both agents and commuters, including many from Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca who use the highway to drive to and from Tucson, he said.

"It will shorten down the wait time," Passement said. "For the agents, it will keep them out of the harsh environment of the sun, the rain, the wind."

The facility will be the second "interim" checkpoint in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. The first was completed in March 2010 at Interstate 19 north of Tubac in a $1.5 million project. A third interim checkpoint is scheduled to be built next year on Arizona 85 south of Gila Bend, Passement said.

There are 11 total checkpoints in the Tucson Sector, which stretches from New Mexico to Yuma County. But Arizona is the only state along the U.S.-Mexico border without permanent checkpoints. That's because a long-standing congressional requirement prohibiting stationary checkpoints in the agency's Tucson Sector was in place until the November 2006 retirement of Rep. Jim Kolbe.

Since then, the agency has kept all temporary checkpoints stationary and been moving forward to get funding and permits for interim checkpoints. The long-term plan is to have several permanent checkpoints in Arizona, like the ones along highways in California and Texas.

Permanent facilities are more cost-effective than temporary facilities, Passement said. Knowing that smugglers will try to go around the facility, the agency can saturate the flanks with agents and technology. It's part of the agency's "defense in depth" strategy.

Checkpoints let smugglers "know that once they cross the border, they can't just jump on the highway and go north," Passement said. "They know there's that second-tier, second-level defense there."

The effectiveness of the agency's highway checkpoints has been hotly debated in Southern Arizona for years.

While the Border Patrol has long contended that permanent checkpoints are a necessary enforcement tool, critics say smugglers simply circumvent the checkpoints, shifting smuggling into the flanking areas and neighborhoods. Rep. Kolbe believed checkpoints should be moved every two weeks to keep the smugglers on their feet.

And many border-area residents question why the Border Patrol is patrolling so far north of the international line. "Patrol the border at the border" is a popular mantra in the borderlands.

The Arizona 90 checkpoint is about 30 miles north of the border. The I-19 checkpoint sits about 25 miles north of the border.

More information should be available about the efficacy of checkpoints and their impact on neighboring communities by the end of 2012. That's when the University of Arizona's National Center for Border Security is expected to complete a two-year study on Border Patrol checkpoints. The Department of Homeland Security is paying $500,000 for the study.

The Border Patrol's current measures to evaluate checkpoints have twice been labeled insufficient by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

An August 2009 GAO report concluded that the Border Patrol's self-reported data weren't sufficient to determine whether the highway checkpoints were efficient or effective.

The report also found that the agency overstated checkpoint results, due to lack of management oversight and inconsistent data gathering and data analysis throughout the agency. The GAO had similarly criticized the agency's method for gauging checkpoints in a 2005 study.

During the three-month construction period, the Border Patrol will not be operating the checkpoint on Arizona 90. It's located at milepost 304 just a few miles north of the intersection with Arizona 82. But agents will continue to patrol the area, Passement said.

The canopy structure going up there will look like a smaller version of the overhang at the I-19 checkpoint, which measures 105-by-115-foot. The I-19 structure is attached to a series of thick steel beams and has low concrete walls on both sides of the northbound lanes.

The company that built the I-19 checkpoint - MRM Construction of Phoenix - is handling construction at Arizona 90.

The Border Patrol has yet to hear any complaints about the new checkpoint going up on Arizona 90, Passement said. That might be because it's not close to as many residential areas as the I-19 facility. The tiny community of Whetstone is a few miles south of the Arizona 90 checkpoint, but Huachuca City is 8 miles south and Sierra Vista is 12 miles south.

"We haven't seen any concerns, and we would have seen them already," Passement said. "I'm sure the public will be happy that it's going from one lane to two because it will shorten their wait time."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or