The flurry of fencing erected along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past three years by the Department of Homeland Security has cost more than expected, a government report shows.

The 140 miles of pedestrian fencing put up under the Secure Border Initiative prior to Oct. 31 of last year cost an average of $3.9 million per mile with costs ranging from $400,000 to $15.1 million a mile, a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday found.

That per-mile average is more than the $3 million estimated by the Congressional Budget Office in August 2006 and much more than the $2.2 million estimated by the Senate used during the immigration reform debate that same year. Even the highest estimate at the time, $3.2 million per mile from U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., ended up being too low.

Pedestrian fences, sometimes called primary fences, are 10-foot-or-higher steel barriers designed to stop or slow down people on foot.

Richard Stana, director of homeland security issues at the Government Accountability Office, said the GAO carried out the report to answer an intriguing question: If Homeland Security would have used the $393 million appropriated to the SBInet virtual fence project in fiscal years 2007-08, how many more miles of physical barriers could have been built?

The answer: 73 miles of pedestrian fencing or 232 miles of vehicle barriers; or 36 miles of pedestrian fences and 116 miles of vehicle barriers, the report says.

Project 28, the Boeing Co.-led virtual-fence test project anchored by nine camera and radar towers along a 28-mile stretch of border flanking Sasabe, Ariz., was delayed eight months by glitches and plagued with problems, a previous GAO report found. The second generation of virtual fences was scheduled to go up in late 2008, but the work was abruptly halted in August.

In reviewing Customs and Border Protection estimates of total contracts for fencing segments — the GAO did not independently verify or validate the information — the report offers a preliminary analysis of the actual costs of the biggest and fastest buildup of border barriers in U.S. history.

"It gives you an idea of what the fence is going to cost," Stana said of the report.

Final costs are still pending.

The report only calculates the cost of the miles finished before Oct. 31 of last year.

Earlier this week, Homeland Security officials said the agency has brought the total miles of primary fencing and vehicle barriers along the Southwest border to 601 miles, 69 miles short of the goal of 670 miles set during the Bush administration. That means there are more than 200 miles of fencing put up whose costs have not been calculated.

The price tag of the fencing won't be available until all the segments are completed and contracts with private companies are closed out, Stana said.

Prior to the Secure Border Initiative, which was launched in November 2005, the federal government had constructed 78 miles of pedestrian fencing and 57 miles of vehicle barriers, the GAO report shows.

The most expensive miles came in San Diego, where construction teams had to fill in a canyon known as "Smuggler's Gulch" with 35,000 truckloads of dirt. That 3.5-mile project, which is scheduled to be completed this year, could end up costing as much $16.5 million per mile, the report shows.

Vehicle barriers, the report found, came in slightly less expensive. The 75 miles of vehicle barriers put up — under chest-high steel barriers designed to stop cars and trucks but not people — cost an average of $1 million per mile, with costs ranging from $200,000 to $1.8 million, the report said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $1.3 million per mile in the August 2006 document.

Of Arizona's 350 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, there are 128 miles of pedestrian fencing and 151.6 miles of vehicle barriers, according to a Dec. 19 Customs and Border Protection release.

On StarNet: Find a multimedia presentation on the history of the border at azstarnet.com/bordertimeline

DId You Know

In December 1999, Tucson was officially designated a border city under a pilot program that extended the border zone for Mexicans holding border-crossing cards from 25 to 65 miles.

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Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com.