Border crossing TxTrib

Asylum seekers wearing face shields make their way to be processed in the US at the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.

On Saturday, Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled nearly 900 feet of newly constructed border barrier on state-owned land near the Rio Grande in Starr County, six months after he promised to finish what President Donald Trump started.

It was the first section of what’s expected to be a nearly 2-mile stretch of wall, and it followed a series of smaller-scale state attempts to block immigrants with chain-link fences, a row of shipping containers and even a boat blockade on the river.

But after the Trump administration managed to build just 21 miles of new border barrier on the 1,254-mile Texas-Mexico border over four years (and also replaced 34 miles of older barrier), the state hasn’t publicly disclosed some basic information about Abbott’s wall-building plans.

Texas has set aside $1.05 billion for border barriers but hasn’t revealed where it plans to build them, how much each mile will cost or how it’s addressing the challenge of acquiring enough private land to fulfill Abbott’s promise.

“We’re going to spend as much as it takes to build as much wall as we possibly can,” Abbott said at his Saturday press conference in Starr County.

For such a high-profile publicly financed project, the Texas wall effort is unusually secretive, said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

Amey said such information was posted online when the federal government was building border barriers.

“I’m unsure there are valid justifications for not releasing information,” Amey said. “It doesn’t seem as if it’s a big secret when the federal government was building the wall.”

Abbott’s office directed questions to the Texas Facilities Commission, the state agency overseeing the border wall project.

The barrier being erected in Starr County offers the first insights into how the state will carry out Abbott’s wall project. In November, the Facilities Commission awarded a $162 million contract to New York-based Posillico Civil Inc. to build 8 miles of border barrier, including the 1.7-mile stretch in Starr County that the Facilities Commission said will cost $34.5 million.

That’s just over $20 million a mile. By comparison, border wall construction under the Trump administration ranged from $6 million to $34 million per mile, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

Abbott has said that 733 miles of the Texas-Mexico border may need some type of barrier. Roughly 1,000 miles have no barrier.

With the $1.05 billion the state has for construction — most of it taxpayer money, but it includes $54 million in private donations, as of Dec. 13 — Texas could build just over 52 miles of border barrier at that price per mile.

Unlike the border in California, Arizona or New Mexico, which is largely federal land, much of the Texas-Mexico border is privately owned. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, it took the Trump administration 21 to 30 months to seize privately owned land in South Texas for wall construction. The report said comparable land acquisitions in other parts of the country took a year.

Texas will need a large amount of private land to build Abbott’s wall. The governor has said state officials are in talks with private property owners along the border who are willing to donate their land so the state can build barriers on their property.

The state manages 497,075 acres of land within 25 miles of the border, said Matt Atwood, a spokesperson for Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has sued the Biden administration for halting construction of the border wall in South Texas.

In Starr County, Posillico Civil plans to build an additional 1.2 miles on private property next to the 1.7-mile stretch, but no agreement has been reached with nearby landowners, said Francoise Luca, a Facilities Commission spokesperson. The location of the remaining 5.1 miles outlined in the Posillico contract has not been determined, Luca said.

During a Texas Facilities Commission meeting last month, John Raff, the deputy executive director, said the agency has found 23 landowners who would be willing to have a border wall built on their property. He didn’t say where that property is or how many miles of barrier could be built on those tracts.

The commission has not said when it plans to award additional contracts to build other parts of the wall or how much the contracts will be worth.

“The work is in progress and so there are no final costs,” Luca said. “Factors that may impact cost can include terrain, floodplains, waterways, subsurface conditions, materials and easements, to name a few.”

She said the locations of border barriers depend on what the Texas Department of Public Safety determines are the highest-priority areas.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting law at the University of Baltimore, said there’s a lot of opposition to a border wall from environmentalists and immigrant rights groups, so Texas may be withholding details about its wall project to avoid bad publicity and lawsuits.

“Texas government’s refusal to provide the public with the land route is delaying and suppressing lawsuits by environmental organizations who can’t sue because they don’t yet know where the wall will be,” he said.