A story in the San Francisco Chronicle today examines a recent Congressional Research Service report on border security, the first version of which was published on this site back in October. An updated version of the CRS report was released in December, and this is what the Chronicle reporter examines:
The cost of building and maintaining a double set of steel fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border could be five to 25 times greater than congressional leaders forecast last year, or as much as $49 billion over the expected 25-year life span of the fence, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
A little-noticed study the research service released in December notes that even the $49 billion does not include the expense of acquiring private land along hundreds of miles of border or the cost of labor if the job is done by private contractors — both of which could drive the price billions of dollars higher.
….The Dec. 12, 2006, nonpartisan congressional report said the corps predicted that the combined cost of building and maintaining the fence over a 25-year life cycle would range from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile, depending on how heavily and how often the fence is damaged by would-be border jumpers. At $70 million per mile, a 700-mile fence would cost $49 billion.
I’ve written repeatedly on this site about the dangers of cost inflation on border fence proposals, out of concern for a political “bait-and-switch” where the costs of fencing are initially lowballed as a means to gain public acceptance. At the same time, I think that fencing has an appropriate role in the border security system if it can be priced appropriately, and negative symbolism aside, is potentially a more cost-effective way to secure the border than other current proposals.
Ultimately, however, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the potential costs of a border fence, creating a gap in the political debate on this issue. This CRS report is a useful synthesis of existing information, but it relies heavily on a ten-year old report from the Army Corps of Engineers, many assumptions of which are highly uncertain (note the wide variation in the estimates in the excerpt above) and seem to be outdated, e.g. the cost assumptions in the report are based on proposals for short border fence segments, and don’t seem to account for the possibility of economies of scale in projects.
To remedy this gap, DHS should commission and publish a neutral study on the costs of border fencing – and/or publish any existing work on this topic that it has at hand. There’s too much uncertainty in the debate today on the costs of border fencing, making for a slippery political debate on the topic.