Monday, June 4, 2012

How much will it cost to fence up the border?

Last Wednesday, Felona asked "How much will it cost to fence up the border?"  That's a great question.  First of all, there aren't any perfect answers.  Until it is actually "fenced up" we can only estimate, but I will give you the best estimates I can find.  Before diving into the numbers, I must say I was shocked at the price tag.  I guess when I hear the word "fence" I think of the chain link fence in my backyard, or the wood picket fence my grandparents had.  But the "Border fence" is actually more like a prison wall, or even multiple prison walls like the walls in the designs below.

Two Walls with barbed wire and ditches with motion detectors concept picture
A concept design of a Border wall(s)
Picture of multiple walls, cameras, and motion detectors
Actual Image of a Border Wall(s)

So, the question remains, how much will these walls cost?  Let's try one part.  Boeing was payed 67 million dollars to create a 28 mile "virtual fence".  Based on the fact that the U.S. Mexico border is 1993.4 miles(pdf), it comes down to a math problem.  67 million/28 miles * 1993.4 miles = nearly 4.8 billion dollars to build.  Unfortunately, it doesn't end there.  Due to delays, glitches, and other cost overruns, The fence actually ended up costing  almost a billion dollars to span just 53 miles.  Plug that into your calculator and you get 37.6 billion dollars.  A lot higher than earlier reports of only 6 or 7 billion.

Of course, other, less costly style border walls have gone up.  But even those will be upgraded with additional fencing and equipment.  The problem is that a single fence is not good enough.  A single fence can be scaled, dug under, etc...  It requires something elaborate to actually stop people.  So I think it's fair to estimate the cost of a Boeing style wall:  Double walls, specially built with barbed wire or slants at the top to make it difficult to climb over, separated by cameras and other sensors to alert border agents.

To check my numbers, I found this congressional research service report from a couple of years ago about the status of the border wall.  It threw out a lot of estimates on per mile costs of the fence:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that border fencing would cost $3 million a mile to construct and that maintenance would total roughly 15% of the overall project costs per year.103 However, the CBO does not elaborate on what is included in those estimates. DHS predicts that the San Diego fence will have a total cost of $127 million for its 14-mile length when it is completed—roughly $9 million a mile. Construction of the first 9.5 miles of fencing cost $31 million, or roughly $3 million a mile, while construction of the last 4.5 miles of fencing is projected to cost $96 million, or roughly $21 million a mile.104 However these costs may be somewhat misleading due to the following factors: construction of the fence was delayed for an extended period of time; the remaining construction involves filling a relatively large gulch which may be more complex than the average stretch of border; and DHS is proposing to use private contractors to expedite the construction process which may increase the labor costs and thus may increase the overall project costs. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the border fencing constructed by the end of FY2007 (using mostly the Corps of Engineers and the National Guard to construct the fencing) cost about $2.8 million a mile.  The fencing constructed
in FY2008, using mostly private constructors, cost about $5.1 million a mile.105
All those estimates are between 3 and 9 million dollars per mile(I left out the 21 million dollar per mile estimate since, as the report described was an unusual geography).  That's between 6 and 18 billion dollars to complete.

Of course, that is just the cost to complete the fence.  That doesn't cover maintenance of the border fence.  There is a very real possibility of people knocking down portions of the wall or nature just washing away 40 feet of it at a time.  In the same report at the one above, the army corp of engineers estimated the maintenance costs to be between 16.4 and 70 million dollars per mile over a 25 year period.  That comes out to 650 thousand and 14 million per year per mile.  Or put another way, between 1.3 billion and 5.6 billion per year just to maintain and repair the wall after it is completed.

Not a direct cost, but the Sierra Club and others have noted the damage to wildlife that a border fence would pose.  It is unclear to me how much that would cost business or government to either solve or to endure it.

In conclusion, I have to say while building and maintaining a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is very expensive, it is not completely impractical.  Even taken the highest estimates to build and maintain, we are talking about between 1 and 2% of the average Federal Budget to build the fence and less than 1% per year to keep up.  I'm happy to offer some the real, concrete numbers. I'll let others argue about whether it is worth the costs.  I think my position has been made clear in the past.  Thanks for the great question, Felona!
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