Four US companies to build prototypes of Mexico border wall

A US worker inspects a section of the US-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, US, opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Nov 9, 2016.
A US worker inspects a section of the US-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, US, opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Nov 9, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The Trump administration on Thursday (Aug 31) announced it has chosen four companies to build concrete prototypes of the president's much-touted border wall.

Construction of the prototypes, to take place in San Diego, is the first step in fulfilling Trump's campaign promise of building a "big, beautiful" wall stretching along the 2,000-mile Mexico border.

"Today we mark a significant milestone," said Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection. "This is the first tangible result of the action planning that has gone on. This is the use of the resources we had available for this year."

There appears to be a lack of political will to fund a continuous barrier. Congress has set aside US$20 million (S$27 million) in the current budget to build the prototypes but has not appropriated any other money for the wall.

Each of the four contracts are worth between just under US$400,000 and US$500,000, Vitiello said.

The companies chosen are: Caddell Construction in Montgomery, Alabama, Fisher Sand & Gravel/DBA Fisher Industries in Tempe, Arizona, Texas Sterling Construction in Houston, Texas, and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Construction is expected to begin on the concrete prototypes in two weeks, Vitiello said, and should be complete within 30 days after breaking ground. Each prototype will be 30-ft long (9.1m) and up to 30-ft high, and will be located within close proximity of each other, he said.

They will act as a secondary barrier in a border enforcement zone that already has a fence.

Homeland Security officials will then spend 30 to 60 days using small hand tools to test the prototypes to see how resistant they are to tampering and penetration, Vitiello said.

Officials will consider aesthetics as well as anti-climb features and how technology could be used to complement the physical barrier.

"We are not just asking for a physical structure," Vitiello said. "We're asking for all the tools that help secure the border."

The administration was originally expected to announce its decision on prototypes in June, but the contracting process was delayed after protests from two companies that had not made the list of finalists.

The Government Accountability Office dismissed the protests last Friday, but unsuccessful bidders now have another opportunity to file new protests, which could further delay construction.

During his visit last week to Phoenix, Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not agree to fund his wall in September."Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall," Trump said during his Arizona rally. " The American people voted for immigration control. That's one of the reasons I'm here, and that is what the American people deserve, and they're going to get it."

Fencing has already been built in the most critical areas, following the 2006 Secure Fence Act under President George W. Bush. And there's been a significant decrease in the number of illegal border crossers since Trump took office.

The government in March asked for design submissions for two types of wall: a reinforced concrete barrier wall as well as one made of an alternative material with see-through capability. The government specified that the wall must be insurmountable and "aesthetically pleasing in colour," at least from the United States side.

More than 200 companies responded with proposals. The contenders were winnowed down to a secret list of about 20 finalists.

Thursday's announcement by US Customs and Border Protection did not include the winners of the non-concrete wall prototype. Trump earlier this summer had floated the possibility of a solar-paneled wall, between 40 and 50 ft high as a way to help pay for construction.

But with less than 2 per cent of the US population living within 64km of the Mexico border, most of the electricity generated by the wall would be useless - without the construction of costly transmission lines to channel the electricity to other parts of the country.

Vitiello said the agency expects to award up to four contracts for the non-concrete prototypes next week. The prototypes will allow the agency to learn about what type of structure would work best along the border. They could function as permanent barriers in San Diego, or be removed or relocated elsewhere, he said.

The firms selected to build the prototypes are not necessarily the ones that would be picked to build the wall, an agency official said. Another bidding process would ensue if funding is approved for the wall itself."This is not a competition to build the rest of the wall," the official said.

Trump's 2018 budget calls for US$2.6 billion for "high-priority tactical infrastructure and border security technology." Of that amount, US$1.6 billion is for "bricks and mortar construction" and US$1 billion is for infrastructure and technology, such as roads needed to access construction sites and surveillance equipment.

Since the campaign, Trump has scaled back his wall ambitions, admitting that a continuous barrier would not be possible - nor necessary - given natural barriers such as lakes, rivers, and mountains. A seamless wall is also unrealistic because of international treaty and flood zone requirements.

The administration had hoped to add more than 100 new miles of wall over the next two years, according to a Department of Homeland Security planning document. Among the "high priority" locations would be the border sectors of the Rio Grande Valley in the southern tip of Texas as well as El Paso, Tucson, Arizona, and San Diego, California.

Of the more than 400,000 illegal immigrants apprehended along the southern border in 2016, nearly half were stopped in the Rio Grande Valley, according to data compiled by the US Border Patrol.

Customs and Border Protection said in June that it would be installing 35 new gates in the Rio Grande Valley to cover existing gaps, as well as begin replacing fencing in San Diego and vehicle barriers in El Paso. Trump has pointed to these repairs as a sign that his wall promise was coming to life.

Customs and Border Protection had initially planned to award contracts by June 12, with construction beginning by July 21, according to a June Homeland Security Inspector General's report.