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Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border wall could take 10 years to build, even with 10,000 workers

  • The wall design currently favoured by Trump appears to make heavy use of steel
  • A project of this scale has rarely been attempted, and finding enough skilled workers also would be difficult
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 8:21pm

The current fight – and now almost three-week US federal government shutdown – over funding for a US-Mexico border wall could look simple when you consider the logistics of actually building the fabled barrier: it would take an estimated 10,000 construction workers more than 10 years to build the kind of 1,600km wall that President Donald Trump has said he wants.

Even the more modest US$5.7 billion in wall funding that Trump directly requested during a prime-time Oval Office address Tuesday to address what he called “a growing humanitarian and security crisis” would take an army of 10,000 workers more than two years to build and yield only 370km (230 miles) of barrier, according to estimates.

And even at 1,600km long, the steel-slatted border wall would still be too small to be a boon for US steelmakers.

The full version of Trump’s envisioned border wall – featuring rarely tested heights cast over almost unimaginable distances – would cost at least US$25 billion, said Ed Zarenski, who teaches construction estimation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Zarenski spent 30 years figuring out project price tags for Gilbane, one of America’s largest construction firms.

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. But you’ve got to factor in engineering considerations,” Zarenski said. “And then I would say, is the project realistic? Probably not.”

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After almost two years of Trump demanding that Congress fund his desire for an expanded southern border wall, little time has been spent determining how the project might actually come together.

A project of this scale has rarely been attempted – not even by the developer-president himself when he was erecting New York skyscrapers.

The border’s landscape is uniquely remote and difficult. The project site is narrow and runs for miles. And there are unknowns, such as the maximum wind load for a fence reaching about three storeys high.

The wall design currently favoured by Trump appears to make heavy use of steel – which the president said would be good for the US steel industry.

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About 3 million tonnes of steel would be needed for 1,600km of steel-slat wall and concrete base, according to Zarenski’s calculations, which factored in 20cm hollow steel tubes standing nine metres high and spaced every 35cm.

But the demand for that steel would not land all at once. It would be stretched over the project’s life. If it took an optimistic 10 years to build, the wall would require less than half a per cent of the annual US appetite for finished steel.

The wall “would have a very limited impact for US steelmakers,” said Josh Spoores, a steel analyst with the research firm CRU.

Trump has made supporting the US steel industry one of his administration’s focal points. Last year, his administration slapped tariffs on steel imported into the United States, ostensibly to help domestic steelmakers.

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But the steel tariff also has hurt US manufacturers who use steel and must contend with increased prices, said Jim Doyle, of the industry trade group Business Forward.

“Trump is disrupting the auto industry and other manufacturers to help steel, a much smaller, less important industry,” Doyle said.

The same dynamic would be seen in the steel used for a border wall. The steel tariffs add about US$1 billion to the estimated US$25 billion border-wall project price tag, according to Zarenski.

The design of Trump’s border wall could still change – and already has fluctuated with the political winds.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump talked of a solid concrete border wall. Then it was steel slats. Sometimes he called it a wall, other times it’s a fence. He has described it stretching for 3,200km and 1,600km and even just 1,100km.

Gary Winek, a professor and construction programme director at Texas State University, recalled how excited the concrete industry had once been – back when the wall was going to be all concrete. Concrete is a fickle material that doesn’t travel well. It has to be mixed close to a project site at either a permanent or temporary plant.

“The logistics are not going to kill the project,” Winek said.

“But it will make it challenging.”

If Trump’s border wall gets funding, construction wouldn’t begin for at least six months – and likely longer, Zarenski said.

Land along the border still needs to be acquired.

Soil and environmental studies need to be done.

The first thing a construction firm would build is not a wall but a road. A roadway running parallel to the border would be needed to allow the backhoes, dumptrucks and cement trucks to reach the remote construction sites.

Finding enough skilled workers in the current tight labour market also would be difficult.

And the project’s massive price tag comes with its own constraints. The construction industry’s rule of thumb, Zarenski said, is that it takes 5,000 to 6,000 workers a year to build US$1 billion worth of construction.

But you can’t fit them all on one job site. For a project like the border wall, you would want to have dozens of different sites going at once.

Zarenski calculated how fast the work could go – assuming 10,000 workers spread equally over 50 sites. Then, they could build about 11 metres of border wall each workday at each site – about 560 metres each workday across all the sites.

Even if these huge crews broke ground today, they would finish just 140km of border wall by year’s end.

By election day 2020, 260km of border wall would be done. It would take 11 years to reach 1,600km. And that’s assuming 10,000 workers going all at once, five days a week.

Cut that to 5,000 workers and a 1,600km long wall would take more than 20 years, Zarenski said.

About 1,120km of the 3,200km-long US-Mexico border already has some form of fence or wall.

In October, the Trump administration touted the completion of about two miles of steel-slat and concrete border wall near Calexico, California, as the first section of the president’s hoped-for border wall.

The project had been planned since 2009 and replaced an existing barrier. And it still took eight months from contract award to completion.

It’s also increasingly clear that Mexico is not going to foot the bill for the border wall, despite Trump’s insistence Tuesday that it would pay “indirectly” through a renegotiated trade pact.

But it might make more sense for Mexico, Spoores with CRU said, because if Mexico built the wall, “the steel would likely come from their mills.”

That would make a big difference to Mexico, whose steel market is one-fifth the size of the American market.