Setback in Building The Wall

Walter Pincus
The Cipher Brief

President Donald Trump’s magnificent wall has had its first setback.

The original schedule for contractors to produce bids to build initial sections of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico has been pushed back from around March 24, to “on or about May 3, 2017,” according to a notice posted today by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

However, for the first time, the segments to be constructed have been described as “concrete wall structures, nominally 30 feet tall, that will meet requirements for aesthetics, anti-climbing, and resistance to tampering or damage.” according to the notice.

On February 24, Trump told a raucous CPAC convention, “We’re building the wall. In fact, it’s going to start soon. Way ahead of schedule, way ahead of schedule.”

That same day, February 24, Homeland Security put out a notice setting an unusually speedy schedule for such a major project.

It said, the formal request for proposals (RFPs) for “the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico” was to be released “on or about March 6.”  Prospective bidders, and some 200 companies and individuals who have indicated an interest, were to have submitted “a concept paper of their prototype(s) by March 10,” just four days later.

Those concept papers were to be evaluated, and by March 20, Homeland Security officials would narrow down the bidders to finalist who were to submit offers, including prices, by March 24.

That original two phase process was to have given contractors just over two weeks to put together bids that normally involve several months’ preparation and often on-site visits to where construction is to take place.

Under the new proposal, the RFP is due out Wednesday or later and the Phase 1 concept papers are not due until March 20. There is no indication when the final bidders will be selected, but those companies or individuals chosen must get their proposals, including pricing, to Homeland Security by around May 3.

The tentative nature of this still hastily-being-put-together, multi-billion-dollar venture is indicated by the wording of today’s notice. It describes this as a first step procurement “to acquire and evaluate available wall prototypes and provide some initial construction of some wall segments, but is not intended as the vehicle for the procurement of the total wall solution for the border with Mexico.”

There will be multiple contractors chosen, the notice says, and “some limited number (yet to be defined) of additional miles are contemplated to be included by competing the requirements among the successful…contract holders.”

In short, although contracting is underway, it is still unclear what is going to be built, where it will all take place, and how much money is available to pay for it.

An internal Homeland Security report, first reported by Reuters last month, contemplated a three-phase effort to fill out the 1,250 miles of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico that still does not have fencing or some sort of physical barriers.

That report puts the overall cost at $21.6 billion, far more than Trump’s estimate of $12 billion.

Last month, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that before constructing the wall, there should be a study measuring the cost of construction verses the benefits of building it. As of today, apparently no such study has been undertaken.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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