“It’s $8 billion. . . . And of the 2,000 [miles], we don’t need 2,000, we need 1,000 because we have natural barriers, et cetera, et cetera, and I’m taking it price per square foot and a price per square, you know, per mile, and it’s a very simple calculation. I’m talking about precasts going up probably 35 to 40 feet up in the air. That’s high; that’s a real wall. It will actually look good. It’ll look, you know, as good as a wall is going to look.”
– Donald Trump, interview with MSNBC, Feb. 9, 2016
Donald Trump put a price tag on the wall he wants to build on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico – $8 billion. He also described the wall in a bit more detail – it would be 1,000 miles long, made of precast concert slabs, rising 35 to 40 feet in the air.
Trump has repeatedly said Mexico will pay for the wall, though Mexican leaders dismiss that as a fantasy. He has suggested that the money would come from reducing the $50 billion trade deficit with Mexico – which as our friends at PolitiFact have documented, is simply nonsensical.
But is his $8 billion estimate in the realm of possibility?
As big government projects go, $8 billion is not a huge sum. A single aircraft carrier these days costs about $13 billion. But then that’s sophisticated ship – and Trump is just talking about a very long wall.
Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the United States has already spent $2.4 billion for fencing across nearly one-third of the border (670 miles). It’s unclear if Trump would replace the fence with the wall or supplement the fence with the wall. (The fence is mostly vehicle barriers and single-layer pedestrian fence, which presumably is inadequate for Trump’s purposes.)
But the fence, while different from a wall, does provide some sense of the numbers involved. The General Accountability Office in 2009 said the cost to build a mile of the fence initially averaged between $2.8 million and $3.9 million. But that was in the easiest areas, near metropolitan centers; other areas in the desert or mountains could cost as much as $16 million a mile.
So 1,000 miles of fences is at best $3 billion, and certainly much higher than that. A concrete wall would clearly be an order of magnitude. (We have not even begun to consider upkeep and maintenance. The Corps of Engineers estimated that the 25-year life cycle cost of the fence would range from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile; the total cost of the fencing so far has been $7 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.)
We can also look at the Israel’s experience with building a separation barrier between Israeli-held areas and Palestinian-held areas. For the first 525 kilometers (326 miles), the cost was $2.6 billion. A simple calculation of expanding that to 1,000 miles yields a calculation of $7.99 billion, suspiciously similar to Trump’s estimate.
But only one-tenth (33 miles) of the Israeli barrier is an eight-meter (25-foot) concrete wall. The other 90 percent is a two-meter (six-foot) high electronic fence. Trump says he wants a 1,000-mile long concrete wall.
Assuming the cost of the fence was equivalent to the U.S. fence ($3 million a mile), that suggests about $1 billion of the cost was for the fence; the other $1.4 billion was for 33 miles of the wall (which was built in mostly metropolitan areas). Believe it or not, that translates to $42 billion for 1,000 miles of a 25-foot wall. (Recall that Trump wants a 35-to-40-foot wall.)
In an interesting article for The National Memo, a structural engineer tried to do the calculations just for the concrete. He even produced a possible sketch.
His calculations were for a 2,000-mile, 25-foot-high wall, so we have updated them for a 1,000-mile, 35-foot-high wall.
– Foundation: 6 feet deep, 18 inch radius = 42.4 cubic feet
– Column: 4 square feet area by 30 feet tall = 120 cubic feet
– Wall panels: 35 feet tall by 10 feet long by 8 inches thick = 249.3 cubic feet
– Total concrete per 10-foot segment = 411.7 cubic feet
– 1,000 miles = 5,280,000 feet = 528,000 segments (10-feet long each)
– 528,000 segments * 411.7 cubic feet per segment = 217,377,600 cubic feet = 8,050,666 cubic yards. (The cubic yard is the standard unit of measure of concrete volume in the United States.)
That’s about double the amount of concrete in the Hoover Dam. A cement manufacturer said prices are now running $85 to $90 a cubic yard, so that works out to about $700 million just for the concrete.
As the engineer noted, a lot of reinforcing steel (rebar) would also be necessary. We figured that the steel would add up to about 1.6 million tons, which works out to about $1 billion at current per-ton costs, but perhaps Trump could get a volume discount.
So just for two raw materials, we are looking at nearly $2 billion. But of course, the wall would need to be designed, land would need to be acquired, environmental impact statements would need to be done, concrete-casting facilities would need to be built, materials would need to be shipped, and workers would need to be hired, housed and fed.
We consulted with several experts, who said even a rough estimate of the total cost was extremely difficult. We will update if we obtain an estimate from a credible source.
Trump’s claim that the wall would cost $8 billion is highly dubious. We would welcome a serious discussion of the costs, rather than mere assertions, and are open to new information, either from Trump or from experts in construction engineering who have crunched the numbers.
But based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Glenn Kessler