CBP cost estimate for Arizona Border Surveillance Technology uncertain, says GAO

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Customs and Border Protection may be duplicating the similar cost-estimating errors in a $1.5 billion effort to deploy technology along the southern Arizona border as it did in SBInet, the now-canceled multi-billion effort to blanket the southwest border with networked chain of radars, cameras and heat and motion detectors.

The Homeland Security Department announced in January 2011 the replacement of SBInet with a lower-cost effort dubbed the Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology--an effort also called Arizona Border Surveillance Technology when referring to the 323 miles of Arizona-Mexican border not covered by SBInet, which was canceled after being deployed along just 53 miles.

The Government Accountability Office, in a Nov. 4 report, says CBP's $1.5 billion estimate for the Arizona project--$750 million for acquisition and $800 million for operations and maintenance over a decade--contains significant uncertainty.

In making cost estimates for integrated fixed towers for sensors, CBP officials made assumptions that might not be accurate, such as that IFT systems would be able to access existing commercial communication networks, auditors say. It's an assumption CBP officials told auditors they no longer hold--and that the cost of adding additional relay equipment should be covered by risk contingency budgeting within the $1.5 billion estimate--but GAO auditors say CBP hasn't undertaken a quantitative risks analysis that justifies their confidence that contingency funds will be sufficient.

Auditors say their findings regarding IFT cost estimates "are particularly relevant, considering that similar deficiencies were identified with the life-cycle cost-estimate for the SBInet Block 1 deployment." Block 1 is the 53 miles of Arizona border that SBInet was deployed to before cancellation.

CBP officials also told auditors the $1.5 billion figure is just a rough-order-of-magnitude estimate, but auditors say CBP officials have used it when formulating budget requests. "A ROM analysis should never be considered a budget-quality cost estimate," they say. CBP received $185 million for the Arizona project during fiscal 2011 and had requested $242 million for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. (Congress has not passed current year funding bills, keeping government funding on a continuing resolution that expires midnight of Nov. 18.)

The GAO also takes CBP to task for not documenting some of the assumptions that led to the Arizona technology approach, which the report describes as a combination of mobile and hand held equipment and remote video surveillance systems followed by three IFTs in fiscal 2012 and two other IFTs by fiscal 2015, funding depending.

CBP officials say they determined the technology mix via an iterative process involving discussion between engineers and Border Patrol agents with discussion centered around achieving the least expensive mix. But since documentation is lacking, an independent party wouldn't be able to assess the justifications made in determining the specific type of technology, quantities and deployment locations in the plan, the report says. And CBP may very well have to revisit those decisions, the report says, "given that the number of apprehensions of illegal border crossers is at the lowest level in 40 years."

For more:
- download the report, GAO-12-22 (.pdf)

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