Writing on the Wall: Report Suggests Border Project Is Off-Track and Over Budget
Emily Pollock posted on September 07, 2018 |
The border wall prototypes, immediately after their construction ended in 2018. A new government watchdog report suggests that the construction and decision process for the wall might be flawed. (Image courtesy of Elliott Spagat/AP.)
The border wall prototypes, immediately after their construction ended in 2018. A new government watchdog report suggests that the construction and decision process for the wall might be flawed. (Image courtesy of Elliott Spagat/AP.)

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office(GAO) documents how the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) tested its eight border barrier prototypes for the U.S.-Mexican border. The report found that many of the prototypes are “extensively” or “substantially” flawed, and that Customs and Border Protection(CBP) has likely underestimated the actual cost of the project.

Between October 2017 and June 2018, the GAO audited the DHS’s efforts, including how it evaluated the prototypes, how they determined location for new barriers, and how the department is managing acquisitions for the project. To do this, the GAO talked to officials and engineers, reviewed paperwork, and observed the DHS as it tested the prototypes.

For fans of the wall, the news is not good. The question now is: how did this happen?

Prototype Design

Photos of the eight winning prototypes, made of either reinforced concrete (bottom right, three top right) or “other materials” (top left, three bottom left). (Image courtesy of CNN.)
Photos of the eight winning prototypes, made of either reinforced concrete (bottom right, three top right) or “other materials” (top left, three bottom left). (Image courtesy of CNN.)

Soon after his inauguration in January 2017, President Trump issued an executive order asking the Secretary of Homeland Security “to immediately plan, design, and construct a wall or other physical barriers along the southwest border.” Two months later, CBP issued two requests for proposals for “walls”: one for prototypes made of reinforced concrete, and another for prototypes made of “other materials.”

Six companies were awarded contracts to build eight prototypes, with two companies winning contracts for barriers constructed of both concrete and “other materials”. Among the four prototypes made of "other materials," one was made of corrugated sheet metal with a pipe at the top, one had a concrete base with an opaque metal top half, and two (the only see-through designs of the eight) were made with metal poles making up the bottom half of the structures. These wining prototypes were tested between October and December 2017, and graded on five different factors: scaling, breaching, constructability, engineering design and aesthetics.

For scaling, the prototype should prevent someone from climbing to the top from either side of the barrier, as well as include anti-climbing features on the top. To test for this factor, CBP performed timed tests to determine whether its climbers could reach the top of the prototype, and whether they could sit on top of the barrier once they had reached its summit.

Requirements for breaching differed depending on the prototype’s material: for concrete prototypes, testers shouldn’t be able to make a hole larger than 12 inches over the course of an hour, and for non-concrete prototypes, the requirement dropped to 30 minutes. To test this, the test team created replicas of the bottom 10 feet of each prototype, and attempted to create holes in them during a timed test.

Constructability requirements stated that the design should be between 18 and 30 feet tall, should prevent digging for a minimum of 6 feet beneath the barrier, and should be constructible in different environments. To meet engineering design standards, the prototypes were tested on their cost-effectiveness to construct and repair, in addition to their constructability on slopes of up to 45 percent. Both categories were evaluated by CBP engineers, as well as a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Finally, “aesthetics” meant that the north side of the barrier “should be pleasing in color and texture to be consistent with the surrounding area” (no word on the south side). To evaluate this feature, CBP had engineers from Johns Hopkins University develop an “attractiveness test” from prototype photos. Sadly, the report did not include a summary of this test.

According to the GAO, the results of the test were less than satisfactory. All four concrete prototypes would present “extensive” construction challenges, two of the others would present “substantial” challenges, and the last two would present only “moderate” challenges. Six of the prototypes would need “substantial” or “extensive” design changes to accommodate surface drainage, and the same number would require “substantial” or “extensive” changes to accommodate Border Patrol’s gates.

Only four of the prototypes could be built on 45-degree slopes, while three of them would not be constructible on any slope over 15 percent. One of the prototypes could not be constructed on any slope without a redesign. This is a particular challenge on the U.S. southern border, where much of the terrain is difficult or mountainous. While the original GAO report included data on the susceptibility of the walls to scaling and breaching, CBP asked that the GAO not make that information public out of security concerns.

A CBP officer patrols the U.S.-Mexico border. Like this segment, much of the border lies on rocky or mountainous terrain. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias.)
A CBP officer patrols the U.S.-Mexico border. Like this segment, much of the border lies on rocky or mountainous terrain. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias.)

According to CBP, it is not planning to use any of the prototypes wholesale; instead, it will be incorporating successful elements from several of them. Still, the question remains: how could a process that solicited the best designs the world had to offer have turned out such flawed prototypes?

One possible answer is the chaos surrounding the bid submission process. CBP opened its call for proposals in March 2017, and gave potential bidders just 12 days to submit their proposals (in comparison, the industry standard is 30 days).  During those 12 days, CBP added seven amendments to its original requests for proposals, and extended the deadline just hours before the original deadline

The confusion meant a loss of possible bids: Some contractors gave up on bidding because of confusion over the request for proposals document, while others declined to bid  because they weren’t sure if there was actually funding for a wall. And among those who did submit bids, not everyone was willing to put their full effort into it. "I’m willing to go with the process, but we might not spend as much money as they envision us spending,” Michael Hari, of Crisis Resolution Security Services, told azcentral."Some of the things they're asking—it's not worth it for prototypes. For $300 million? Yeah, sure. But just for a prototype? Eh, it’s probably not worth it."

One of the rejected wall prototype designs, created by architecture firm Gleason Partners LLC, which would have allegedly generated enough electricity to pay for its construction in under 20 years. (Image courtesy of Gleason Partners LLC.)
One of the rejected wall prototype designs, created by architecture firm Gleason Partners LLC, which would have allegedly generated enough electricity to pay for its construction in under 20 years. (Image courtesy of Gleason Partners LLC.)

Government oversight officials watching the proceedings blamed the chaos on the rush to get the wall built. The bidding process went far more quickly than the process for the comparatively modest Secure Fence Act in 2006, and included fewer technical specifications. And some officials believe that the speed might have had a negative impact on the quality of the prototypes.

"It seemed more like an effort to get something done in a certain time frame and take credit for moving the border wall idea along, and make good on a campaign promise than on getting or soliciting ideas that may be in the best interest of government taxpayers," said Scott Amey, general counsel for the watchdog organization Project On Government Oversight. "Having a rushed process is going to lead to some shortcuts by the federal government," he added. "You may not end up with the best pool of vendors when you put something on the fast-track."

Location, Location, Location

In its report, the GAO also tracked how CBP determined where to place the new barriers.

Back in 2017, Border Patrol developed the Impedance and Denial Prioritization Strategy, a method to prioritize where to invest in new border barriers. It divided the border into a total of 197 segments across the southwest border, organized those segments into 33 groups, and then ranked the groups. The ranking was based on input from boots-on-the-ground border officials, data on where undocumented immigrants enter the country, and an analysis of how easy it would be to install the border at each location.

What it did not include was an analysis of how much it would cost to build the border in each of the locations.

One of the factors that would drive up building costs in specific locations is land ownership. According to the GAO, “federal and tribal lands make up 632 miles, or approximately 33 percent, of the nearly 2,000 total border miles.” That leaves two-thirds of the border that’s owned either by individual states or private landowners. And, while eminent domain laws mean that the government can seize land for public infrastructural projects as long as there’s "just compensation,” land seizure opens the government to lawsuits. According to a 2017 analysis by the Chicago Tribune, President George W. Bush's 2006 land seizure cost the government $78 million in landowner compensation, and the government is on track to spend $21 million on cases that are still pending, with an additional $4 million in litigation costs.

Land ownership varies along the border, with the federal government owning approximately a third of the border land. Private and state-owned land could pose a challenge to CBP’s plans to build the wall. (Image courtesy of the GAO.)
Land ownership varies along the border, with the federal government owning approximately a third of the border land. Private and state-owned land could pose a challenge to CBP’s plans to build the wall. (Image courtesy of the GAO.)

Another factor that would increase costs at some areas along the border is the terrain itself. The geography of the border is varied, with terrain ranging from flat desert to rocky or mountainous ground. According to the report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which consulted on the project, said that construction costs for the prototypes would increase as the slope of the land did. But this information wasn’t taken into account when CBP decided where to build the wall. The border separating Texas from Mexico in particular is a logistical nightmare, cutting through the difficult-to-traverse Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. According to the report, CBP has selected locations in the Rio Grande Valley to build the new barriers.

"What we heard from Border Patrol and DHS related to these findings was that they really focused the prioritization methodology on trying to identify what the operational needs were," said Rebecca Gambler, a director of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice Team, and one of the authors of the study. "They didn't intend for the methodology to include cost, but [said] that the department would include cost going forward as part of the annual budget request process." In other words, cost information would be deferred until later in the project.

Gambler and the GAO believe that decision was a mistake. "GAO has done work looking at how agencies make investments and as part of our work on investment decision making, we've identified what we would call leading practices for making investments. As part of those leading practices, GAO has included the importance of including cost in prioritizing investment," Gambler said. "We would say that it is a best practice for agencies to do that, to really ensure that as an agency, they're using their money as cost-effectively as possible."

The GAO also disagreed with the DHS's original decision not to go through its usual acquisitions process for part of the border barrier. Normally, DHS reviews any major programs at acquisition decision events, where the department reviews and approves important documents (like the life-cycle cost estimates and testing plans). Initially, DHS was not planning to require CBP to go through the whole acquisition process on the San Diego Secondary Barrier (a major part of the eventual border wall). While that may sound like a boring bureaucratic detail to non-government officials, it would have essentially meant that CBP would be heading into the build process without official documentation of its estimated costs or construction timeline.

While the public isn't privy to the reasons behind CBP's decision, one possible reason for its truncated consideration process is time. "One thing that we did hear from DHS officials was that they were developing the [2018 fiscal year] budget requests in a condensed time frame," said Gambler.

What’s Next for the Wall?

After communicating with the authors of the GAO study, the DHS agreed that it would develop the proper documentation, and would include the cost of building on each site in its evaluations going forward. It also mentioned that it would be incorporating the most successful elements from each prototype, rather than using any one prototype wholesale, and that the barrier it uses in each area would depend on the area’s geography. So, for now, the symptoms have been solved.

But, ultimately, the problems with the wall aren’t about the contractors, or about DHS’s specific documentation process, or about how the department prioritizes building costs. It’s that the whole process is happening too quickly, with not enough clarity or communication between the parties involved.

In 2017, President Trump insisted that the border wall would be built “soon, way ahead of schedule.” And, indeed, preparation for the wall is progressing quickly.

The question is, at what cost?


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