Where there's a will, is there a wall? Building Trump's border wall won't be cheap

7:00 a.m. MT July 24, 2017

President Donald Trump's promised border wall could cost between $10 billion and $60 billion.

Or more.

Or maybe a lot less.

It's unclear how much of the border will get a wall, a fence or rely on technology and manpower.

It is clear Congress is girding for a fight over spending $1.6 billion on a project central to Trump's campaign promises.

Such is the unsettled nature of the wall. Six months into Trump's presidency, the "big, beautiful wall" he wants remains ill-defined and often seems a near-afterthought as the administration fends off investigations and struggles to find its legislative footing.

Still, the government is quietly proceeding with prototypes.

Honing in on the cost is difficult, primarily because Trump himself has offered shifting estimates and conflicting details.

This month, for the first time, he suggested that the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico could be secured with as little as 700 miles of wall. He has also variously suggested the wall could be 40 feet high or more. For now, the prototypes will be 18 to 30 feet high.

Engineers can design and rough out costs but critical details, such as its height, length and thickness, change the price tag by tens of billions. Then there's the location.

"The major cost driver in this type of project is we are trying to build infrastructure in some of the remotest areas of the land," said Barzin Mobasher, a professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. "The idea of a wall of this magnitude has not been tried before."

This design submission from Advanced Warning Systems calls for a 22-foot tall wall made of solar panels, reinforced with a six-foot chain link fence 100 feet away. Advanced Warning Systems

Prototypes for Trump's border wall

This design submission from Advanced Warning Systems calls for a 22-foot tall
wall made of solar panels, reinforced with a six-foot chain link fence 100 feet away.
Advanced Warning Systems

Access to electricity, fuel, labor and other materials is limited, making it more challenging and more expensive, he said.

The budget demands of future congresses, Trump's own political future and legal hurdles posed by political and environmental activists will also affect the project, said William Ibbs, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Tell me all those political and social and environmental details, and I can give you some insight in what's going to happen to the wall," Ibbs said. "In all likelihood, this is going to be a long process."

Estimates go up, unlike the wall

One thing is clear: Whatever its shape and length, a wall would be expensive.
In September 2015, Trump told CNN it would cost $4 billion. By February 2016, he said it would cost $8 billion.

In the first week of the Trump administration, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan put the cost at between $12 billion to $15 billion.

A month later, a Department of Homeland Security report estimated it at $22 billion. In April, Senate Democrats claimed a more likely cost is $67 billion.

Underscoring the moving price tag, comedian Stephen Colbert piled on with a $2 trillion estimate that didn't include the wallpaper he would like added to the finished product.

Old idea, new urgency

Physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border date back to at least 1909, when the government sought to control the spread of diseased animals.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol began erecting a 10-foot steel fence along 14 miles of the border near San Diego.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 called for expanding the fence to 850 miles. That was later scaled back to “not less than 700 miles of the southwest border where fencing would be most practical and effective.”

Since then, the government has built 653 miles of it along some of the flattest and most accessible terrain. In 2013, Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security secretary, told the Senate "the fence, to the extent it has been appropriated for, is complete."

That means the nearly 1,300 miles that remains open is more uneven, more remote and will be more expensive to wall off.

But Trump has on several occasions said his "physical wall," which he has distinguished from the fence, would not need to cover the entire open portion.

"Remember this," he told reporters who accompanied him has he flew to France this month, "it’s a 2,000-mile border, but you don’t need 2,000 miles of wall because you have a lot of natural barriers. You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious. You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So you don’t need that. But you’ll need anywhere from 700 to 900 miles."

What would it cost?

While there isn't much solid wall along the southern border currently, the extensive fencing can give some sense of the expenses taxpayers would face.

In a 2009 report, the Government Accountability Office found a wide range of costs per mile for pedestrian fencing compared to vehicle barriers. At the low end, a mile of vehicle barriers cost as little as $200,000, while the priciest mile of pedestrian fencing cost $15.1 million.

On average, pedestrian fencing cost $6.5 million per mile in 2008. Adding a second layer of pedestrian fencing added $2 million more to the cost per mile where its costs could be calculated.

"The type of fencing, topography, materials used, land acquisition costs, and labor costs, among other things" influenced the costs, auditors wrote.

When the Border Patrol's employees helped build it, the average price was 45 percent lower, in part because of savings on labor costs.

Using those dated estimates, it would cost up to $4.6 billion for fencing — not a wall — covering an additional 700 miles.

Land was a significant expense then, auditors noted, and would likely be more today.

The Border Patrol said it didn't have to buy much private land or undertake related environmental studies for the fencing built in 2007. If it had, that would have added roughly $800,000 to the cost for every mile, according to a GAO report.

Today, some of the largest stretches of open border — and the busiest corridors for illegal immigration — are in Texas, where much of the land is privately owned.

Other costs

A Border Patrol officer patrols in Ajo, Arizona. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Other factors also will affect the price of the wall, Ibbs said.
Pouring concrete in rock carries different costs than doing so in relatively sandy soil. If the local markets are busy for contractors, the price will go up.

Free-standing walls need to withstand winds with reinforced foundations. As the above-ground wall gets higher, the below-ground foundation grows exponentially, Mobasher said.

Building a concrete wall across a desert will require a resource that's scarce on most ofthe border: water.

It's needed for the concrete mix, but also to clean the aggregate that goes into the mix, said Greg Gentsch, a Flagstaff-based civil engineer and consultant.

"On the average, if a cubic yard of concrete has 600 pounds of cement, it will have about 300 pounds of water," Gentsch said.

The project will also need tons of steel to reinforce the wall. Depending on whether the wall is free-standing, connected to observation perches or supported with back-fill, 1 to 2 percent of the volume of the structure will include steel rebar, Gentsch said.

Part of the wall would run through California and must account for seismic activity.

Because of the weather conditions in Arizona, it may be best to use pre-cast concrete panels that are essentially dropped in place, Ibbs said. Such panels are manufactured at a plant and transported to the site.

That process requires grading roads so the panels arrive intact. It also means cranes and other heavy equipment are needed to position the panels.

"Construction is a complicated business," Ibbs said. "There's a lot of things that the public knows and sees every day. But there's a lot of things that go on behind the scenes."

Another feature: solar?

In June, Trump floated the idea at least twice of incorporating solar panels into his wall. It would likely add at least $1 billion to the cost.
Trump told Republican lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that he envisioned at least a 40-foot-high wall "covered with solar panels," according to Axios.

"We're thinking about building the wall as a solar wall so it creates energy and pays for itself. And this way, Mexico will have to pay much less money. And that's good right?" Trump later said during a rally in Iowa.

That idea seems to build on the one pitched in the Wall Street Journal in March by two academics who suggested the entire span could be built with solar panels for about $1 billion plus fencing and road costs.

It's unclear if Trump or the academics factored in the cost of transmission lines needed to tie the energy harnessed from the sun to a power grid, where it can be consumed. Solar plants typically are built near existing transmission lines that can carry power from multiple sources all day long, not just during daylight when solar panels make power.

Solar panels are typically angled southward to face the sun. Cladding a vertical wall with them wouldn't maximize that exposure, and would leave them facing Mexico. That could invite large-scale damage from those who hate the wall.

Putting them on the U.S.-facing wall would make them less productive.

"I'm baffled by the idea of using solar panels. ... Nobody puts solar panels on walls. They put it on the roof simply for the orientation aspect," Mobasher said. "How are we going to collect that electricity? How are you going to convert it? How are you going to transmit that electricity?"

Expect cost overruns

Would-be immigrants wade across the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border in Roma,
Texas, in March 2017. U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted the group on the Texas side.
(Photo: Getty Images)

Whatever the government thinks the wall will cost, pick a higher number, experts say.

"The question is not, are there going to be overruns, but, sort of, how much?" said Charles Jacobson, the former president of the Public Works Historical Society and partner with the litigation consulting firm of Morgan Angel in Washington, D.C.

Cost overruns happened with major projects like the Erie Canal and the Hoover Dam.

"There's lots of research that says public projects have more cost overruns than private projects. It happens more often and it happens more severely," Ibbs said. "And there's some people who say that the reason is because the public officials ... set prices that are very optimistic in order to get them budgeted. And then when the project comes in higher, they've been elected to the next office."

Ibbs would know: He was involved with the "Big Dig" in Boston, a massive transportation project that was supposed to cost $2 billion and wound up at $12 billion 15 years later.
Part of the problem there, he said, involved a failure to account for inflation on a project that took so long or for the suddenly hot Boston construction market that drove up prices. That downtown tunnel originally didn't include a park that was later added or factor in some engineering challenges of going under Boston Harbor that only became clear after work was underway.

In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure approving high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That work is not expected to be completed until 2029, and its projected costs have already grown more than 50 percent.

Jacobson said the timetable for building a wall will depend on the urgency in Washington.

During World War II, oil pipelines were built from the Midwest to the East Coast in two years, he said. The Empire State Building was built in one year. Building a wall can be expedited, but
that could lead to unexpected expenses, he added.

Gentsch said fast-tracking the wall may mostly be wishful thinking.

"The thing you need most for a thousand miles of wall," he said, "is time."