The Senate passed an amendment (S.Amdt.4775) on Wednesday to the Defense Appropriations bill (H.R. 5631) to give the Army National Guard $1.829 billion for the construction of 370 miles of border fence and 461 miles of vehicle barriers. I’ve been a strong supporter of constructing a border fence, primarily because I believe it’s a more cost-effective way to secure the border than hiring ten thousand new Border Patrol and investing in new sensors & surveillance systems. But at the cost that this amendment implies, I worry that the taxpayers will be getting a raw deal.
Vehicle barriers cost about $600,000/mile, according to this story in the Arizona Daily Star. That implies that $1.552 billion out of the $1.829 billion should be for the construction of border fence. That works out to $4.2 million per mile – notably higher than the $3.14 million per mile ($2.2 billion/700 miles) that Rep. Duncan Hunter and others suggested a fence would cost earlier this year. And it’s significantly higher than the $2.5 million per mile cost of the Israeli border fence (my estimate based on an assessment of all of the existing estimates, subtracting out the unique Israeli costs for multiple crossing points and frequent observation towers). And it’s also significantly more expensive than the fences that the Minutemen have been building on private property ($300,000/mile). It’s cheaper than the 14-mile San Diego fence (at least $5.5 million/mile) and the fences for the Spanish African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, but these are urban fences, so their requirements are greater than a fence running across a desert.
The bottom line is that $4.2 million per mile is more than the border fence should cost. I don’t know yet the reasons for this cost inflation. Perhaps the Army National Guard is more expensive than private sector alternatives. Perhaps the cost of raw materials has increased since earlier estimates. Perhaps the agencies and/or companies that would build the fence are in the process of turning this into a wasteful boondoggle. Whatever the case, the Congress needs to uncover the rationale for this cost increase and explain it to the general public, instead of simply accepting this expensive proposal with little debate.