January 29, 2023

As Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to quickly and quietly seal off Texas from Mexico accelerates, the state has now awarded $830 million in contracts to erect over 30 miles of border barriers.

Last week, the Texas Facilities Commission approved its fifth construction contract for the $137 million project to erect nearly 7 miles of steel bollard fences along the border in Webb and Zapata counties. That’s in addition to over 9 miles the state was scheduled to build in Webb earlier this month.

Huge Webb County, home to the cross-border economic hub of Laredo, has struggled to remain the only major border county in the state without a federal wall — save for a small portion on a college campus. In the final months of the Trump presidency, his administration accelerated plans for a several-kilometer wall through Laredo and the surrounding region, prompting staunch opposition from a broad and unlikely coalition of local wall opponents ranging from wealthy ranchers to environmentalists. These plans were ultimately thwarted by President Joe Biden, whose administration canceled all active contracts to build the border wall.

Now the region is once again in the crosshairs, thanks to Abbott’s taxpayer-funded political effort to continue Trump’s harrowing legacy.

“It’s just sad that we’re going back to this from the beginning,” said Tricia Cortez, a Laredo-based environmental activist and co-founder of the No Border Wall Coalition Texas Observer. “It’s a colossal waste of money for a project that won’t do much to solve the challenges we have with migration. And they know that.”

The state agency, which works in coordination with the Texas Department of Public Safety, has kept the details of its construction plans for the border wall — including when and where it will go — top secret, citing security concerns and claiming such transparency could cause delays would and add costs to the project.

“It’s just sad that we’re at it all over again.”

Cortez said her coalition, along with elected officials in Webb County, were unaware of the state’s plans to build in her backyard until the contracts were awarded. Her coalition is now trying to find out more details about where the state plans to build and which landowners have been contacted.

State treaty documents provide limited guidance. The first wall contract for Webb County was awarded to Fisher Sand & Gravel earlier this month for just over 9 miles. A redacted version of this treaty states that the first part of the treaty is on private land “northwest” of Laredo. Documents from the agency’s assigned project manager show proposed plans to build several miles along private ranch land northwest of Webb and several miles south of Laredo through the small towns of El Cenizo and Rio Bravo.

When asked about the project locations for these contracts, agency spokeswoman Francoise Luca said, “Specific project locations are not being disclosed at this time.”

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That’s what Carina Hernandez, the new mayor of El Cenizo, said recently Laredo morning times that she was aware that state officials had approached the city to buy city parking lots for the construction of her wall, but she had not committed to continue negotiations. Narrated by Melissa Cigarroa, Laredo City Council member and anti-wall activist border report that she heard the state is offering around $18,000 for land rights to some property owners around El Cenizo and Rio Bravo. Although agreements are voluntary, she said the state preys on people who, I don’t think, understand the full implications of what a wall would be. You’re offering them what’s essentially the sum of an entire year’s income for the right of way.”

The Facilities Commission said this will likely be the last contract to come out of the $900 million pot of taxpayer money lawmakers originally earmarked for Abbott’s wall in 2021, but there’s a lot more money coming in Pipeline. “Something tells me the Legislature could do that,” Facilities Commission Chairman Steven Alvis said at the commission’s meeting last week.

Indeed, the day before, the Texas House and Senate released their budget proposals, both of which would keep federal spending on border security for Operation Lone Star at record levels: $4.8 billion over the next two years. The Lege plans to give $1 billion of that directly to the governor’s office. About two-thirds of that – $650 million – will be dedicated to the wall, budget documents show, to ensure the trough remains open for border wall contractors. That number could also easily skyrocket if Abbott pushes lawmakers for more.

The state awarded the latest contract to Sullivan Land Services Company (SLSCO), a construction and disaster response firm owned by a trio of Galveston brothers. The Sullivan brothers’ outfit has won key Texas government contracts over the years, including over $300 million in services for the state’s COVID-19 response and Operation Lone Star border mission, state spending records show. Much of this has been through emergency no-bid purchases permitted by Gov. Abbott’s ongoing catastrophe declarations that are suspending typical competitive bidding processes.

The brothers — John, Todd, and Billy — were also generous donors to Abbott’s campaigns, giving him a total of over $250,000 in donations over the years, according to government campaign funding records.

SLSCO also became a top contractor for Trump’s wall, winning nearly $2 billion worth of contracts to build along the border in Texas, New Mexico and California, though most of these were voided by Biden. After soliciting bids for design-build contractors last year, the Facility Commission selected SLSCO and four other firms that had previous federal border wall contracts as exclusive contractors for the state project.

Since the project began in the summer of 2021, Texas has completed just 1.6 miles of border wall on state-owned land in Starr County, while construction along part of private land in Cameron County has recently begun. But with this latest contract, the state has now assigned over 30 miles of planned wall to a quintet of contractors. Facility Commission officials insist the project will pick up steam in the new year as the state secures more land.

At current costs, the bill for Texas taxpayers would be over $17 billion.

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