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Boeing to get border contract renewal, official says
Bloomberg News
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Published: 9/8/2009 2:19 PM

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Boeing Co. will get a one-year extension worth as much as $300 million on its contract to build a network of cameras, radar and sensors to stop illegal crossings at the U.S. borders, said the federal official in charge of the project.

Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative, said it made sense to retain Chicago-based Boeing as tests are scheduled to begin on the system deployed along a section near Tucson, Arizona. The original three-year contract wraps up at the end of this month.

"We need to get this system built, and we need to confirm it's the system we want, and we need to have a single contractor that's accountable for that," he said in an interview. "It's probably not a good time to be talking about changing our acquisition strategy" by hiring another contractor.

Customs and Border Protection estimates it will cost $6.7 billion to install the system so that it covers the most heavily traveled parts of the U.S.-Mexico border by 2014.

The project has been plagued by technical glitches and delays since its start in 2006. Early on, technicians had trouble with cameras that took too long to focus and radar images obscured by raindrops.

In February, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said the company needed to make a case for keeping the contract.

Borkowski said many technical problems have been fixed. Another challenge will be deciding whether to keep current components, such as radar and camera systems, or spend money acquiring more capable ones, he said.

"The question is how much more we should invest for that capability if what we've got is working," he said.

Initial testing on the Tucson section will begin in "less than two months" with an evaluation completed by the end of the year, he said. The Border Patrol then will examine the system for several additional months to see if other changes are needed, he said.

Federal officials will be testing to see if the system can detect 70 percent or more of people and vehicles crossing the border illegally, Borkowski said.

Construction along a second section of the Arizona border is slated to begin next month with testing scheduled "early in the spring," he said. That installation has been delayed for six months because it includes environmentally sensitive land, limiting options for erecting towers that hold the cameras and sensors, Borkowski said.

A Boeing spokeswoman didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

The contract extension gives federal officials the flexibility to add or subtract work, making it difficult to pinpoint its value to Boeing, he said.

The federal government has two additional one-year options to renew the contract. Borkowski said the administration still hasn't decided whether it wants to deploy this particular system along both borders.

"We want to make sure in our own mind that this is the system we want to buy," he said.