While running for office, President Trump said the border wall would cost about $8 billion, a figure widely recognized as an unreasonably low estimate". This week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated the cost of construction at $21.6 billion. Figuring out what the wall would cost has been a source of debate for longer than the last election cycle. In 2013, the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators set aside $1.5 billion for a plan to add 700 miles of wall - also a completely unrealistic budget.
In this edition of TruMpISSION: Impossible we examine the numbers behind building a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border. There are five main reasons why this mission is impossible.
1. It will be hideously expensive. The un-walled portion of the border covers the most difficult terrain, a lot of which could cost $17 million per mile. Historically, building on flat land cost about $4 million per mile. The government spent $2.4 billion between 2006 and 2009 to build a stretch of wall along 670 miles of easy terrain (Secure Fence Act of 2006). A 2009 attempt to build along one rugged stretch of the border was budgeted at $58 million for just 3.5 miles.
Since most of the easier stuff is already built, I calculated that the cost for the next 1.289 miles could easily run $19.3 billion - I think the new DHS estimate is close to the mark. To put the number into perspective, the cost will be about seven times the entire 2016 budget of the U.S. Border Portal. Construction isn't the only expense. Section 10 of the Executive Order basically "deputizes" local law enforcement - at the expense of local taxpayers - to act as immigration officers for carrying out deportations.
2. More than 1,000 of the open border is under water. Building a wall in the water would be wildly expensive and would have to be replaced frequently. In February 2012, construction began to extend began to extend an 18-foot high border fence 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean to seal off the gap that opened at the beach between Tijuana and San Diego during low tide. The private contractor who built it (Granite Construction Company, NYSE:GVA) gave the government a 30-year warranty. The budget for that Surf Fence Project was $4.3 million (I did not find the final cost in any public source). Based on that budget, the cost of building the wall in water could run $75.9 million per mile or about 4.5 times the cost of building on rugged land and nearly 20 times the cost of building the parts on more level ground. Building a fence on the water part of the border would cost close to $9 billion alone.
3. Maybe Trump does not really mean to build on the border that lies underwater. The Executive Order defines the "Southern border" as only the "land border". To avoid the extra expense of building in the ocean, the gulf, and two rivers, we can build on the land outside the flood-plain/tidal-zone. It is likely the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has heard of the "adverse possession". Along the border, state laws transfer rights to abandoned property to the possessor in 5 to 10 years. Building just one half mile from the rivers means the United States could relinquish at least 657 square miles to Mexico. Are we prepared to cede to Mexico an area 1.5 times the size of Los Angeles?
Fox News has noted that "[w]hile 1,254 miles of [the] borders is in Texas, the state has only 100 miles of wall". At least 65 miles of the 100 mile route proposed through Texas in 2008 sat a half mile from the border. In some places, like the McAllen area of Texas, the proposed track separated a water reservoir from the pumping stations that bring water to US citizens. Building up to a mile into the US side has already stranded the property of US citizens on the Mexico side of the wall.
4. The border land that is not under water or already fenced is mostly in private hands. In a January 2016 story Fox News recognized that finishing the wall along the border in Texas could require hundreds of lawsuits by the federal government. The Washington Post also reported going into the 2009 expansion of the wall that much of the planned route would slice through private property. Private property adds an average of $61,491 per mile (based on actual costs in 2012). During the 2009 expansion, 135 private landowners refused to let surveyors onto their property. Seventy percent of the landowners who held out were in Texas. Anybody remember Jade Helm 15 when part of Texas was labeled "hostile territory" during military exercises? The Governor ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises. What do you think will happen if bulldozers show up uninvited to begin claiming 1,000 miles of Texan's private property? The federal government can use eminent domain, but it is costly, takes a long time and holds an uncertain outcome.
5. There may not be enough brick and mortar to build a wall along the US/Mexico border, especially if Trump keeps talking it up. During the 2009 expansion of the wall, cost estimates ballooned as a Border States construction boom led to labor shortages and rising costs for construction materials (e.g., steel and cement). Try building more than 1,000 miles of border wall while re-building transportation infrastructure, the strain will be beyond the global peak in prices seen when shovel-ready projects were initiated under post-financial-crisis stimulus spending.
The Executive Order gave DHS 180 days (until about the second anniversary of Jade 15) to come up with a plan. DHS also has to figure out how to return deportable aliens “to the territory from which they came” – imagine millions of aliens lined up along the US/Mexico border. DHS has less time (until March 26) to figure out how to pay for the wall by withholding “all bilateral and multilateral development aid, economic assistance, humanitarian aid, and military aid” that the US may be planning to send to Mexico. That sounds like it could actually work to balance the budget outlay. Except that it won’t actually work. Total U.S. foreign aid to Mexico disbursed from all agencies in 2015 was $338.5 million (that’s “million” with an “m”). At that rate, it will take 54 years to recover the cost!
Aid to Mexico includes $215 million for international drug and law enforcement plus $50 million more for in-country drug enforcement. The other hundred million or so was for justice projects, legal reform, crime prevention and military support. According to former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, “…experience teaches that border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America. Ultimately, the solution is long-term investment in Central America to address the underlying push factors in the region.”
[After I calculate the costs for several more truMpISSIONs, I will calculate the cost of financing with debt. Just because something is impossible, doesn’t mean Trump won’t spend your money on it.]
Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Dr. Trimbath’s credits include appearances on national television and radio programs and the Emmy® Award nominated Bloomberg report Phantom Shares. She appears in four documentaries on the financial crisis, including Stock Shock: the Rise of Sirius XM and Collapse of Wall Street Ethics and the newly released Wall Street Conspiracy. Her newest book, Lessons Not Learned: 10 Steps to Stable Financial Markets, was published in November by Spiramus Press (UK). Dr. Trimbath teaches graduate and undergraduate finance and economics.