WASHINGTON – The U.S. government would save about $2.6 billion if President-elect Joe Biden halts construction on the border wall project on his first day in office, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates reviewed by The Washington Post.
Biden told reporters this summer that he would not build “another foot” of the border barriers that became a symbol of the Trump presidency and one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history. But the financial implications of a decision to stop work – including the costs to the government it may incur – have not been publicly disclosed.
U.S. Army Corps commanders met with members of the Biden transition team last week to discuss the border wall project, corps spokeswoman Raini Brunson said. She declined to comment on the estimates reviewed by The Post, referring additional questions to the president-elect’s office.
“We cannot speculate on what the final cost estimates for undelivered work would be nor speculate about what actions a White House Administration may or may not take,” Brunson said in a statement.
Biden’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The Trump administration obtained about $15 billion for the barrier project, enough to complete 738 miles of new fencing, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. About one-third of the $15 billion was provided by Congress through the standard appropriations process; Trump took the rest from Department of Defense counternarcotics programs and military construction accounts.
The U.S. Army Corps estimates show that there will be about $3.3 billion in unused funds in the project’s accounts on Jan. 21. Army Corps officials have had meetings in recent weeks about how to end the contracts and about what can be done legally and when.
While the Biden administration will have the ability to terminate or modify contracts with the construction firms building the barrier, those companies will be able to bill the government for “demobilization” fees that cover the withdrawal of crews, materials and equipment from the border. Those fees are projected to add up to about $700 million, according to the estimates.
The Army Corps also priced out a third option that would not add more linear miles to the barrier but allow companies to complete the roads, sensors and other “attributes” that are part of the contracts. CBP officials have long insisted that the barrier is part of a “system” that includes powerful detection technology and roads that allow patrol agents to respond faster to incursions.
Of the $1.6 billion remaining in Department of Homeland Security money for the project – one of the funding sources – the government would be able to save $1.1 billion by completing these ancillary features, estimates show, compared with $1.46 billion by freezing the project entirely. The Biden administration has not said whether it would consider completing those elements of the project, or bring everything to a screeching halt.
The president-elect’s agenda calls for an immediate end to the national emergency declaration that allowed Trump to “siphon federal dollars” from defense budgets, according to the transition team’s website.
“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders,” Biden’s plan says. “Instead of stealing resources from schools for military children and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Biden will direct federal resources to smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.”
Construction crews along the border have been working round-the-clock in multiple locations to build the barriers as fast as possible before Biden takes office, anticipating that the project’s days are numbered. Environmental and conservation groups who oppose the project have expressed outrage that crews continue to bulldoze and demolish sensitive desert and mountain regions, altering the landscape as they clear a path for barriers they will not have time to install.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters this week that Biden’s pledge to stop work would be a “waste of taxpayer money” adding up to “billions.”
“There has been talk about quote ‘not building another foot of wall.’ I want to talk about the reality, not the political reality, but the substantive impact, of stopping construction,” Morgan said. “Let’s consider the cost directly to American taxpayers when we walk away, which will probably be billions of dollars that have already been invested and assigned to a contract.”
According to Morgan, the government would be on the hook for materials the companies have purchased, including steel bollards that might have to be “destroyed” if they are not installed in the ground. The acting commissioner also said border wall contractors could charge the government for the cost of refilling trenches with dirt if concrete is not poured into them by the time Biden pulls the plug.
“More costs to the taxpayer for nothing,” Morgan said.
CBP officials say crews are on pace to finish 450 miles of new fencing by the end of the year. Much of that has been built across national forests, wildlife preserves and other public lands in Western states where the government already controls the property. Progress has been much slower along the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas, where nearly all the land is in private hands and landowners have battled Trump administration efforts to seize it through eminent domain.
Trump asked for regular updates on the wall leading up to the election, and he has told aides that he wants to be able to say more than 500 miles have been built, one senior administration official said. The administration has continued to work on the project during the transition, the official said.
A Biden decision to halt construction would deal the biggest blow to the CBP’s efforts in South Texas, the busiest span for illegal crossings, which border officials identified as their top priority for new barriers. Crews are projected to complete about 30 miles of new barriers along the river levees in South Texas, far short of the agency’s goals.
Trump ran for office in 2016 on his vision for a border wall he said would stop illegal crossings and protect Americans from criminals. But illegal migration has increased significantly during the years when Trump spent heavily on the wall. Despite the completion of more than 400 miles of new fencing, border authorities made more than 70,000 detentions in October and November, CBP statistics show, the highest totals for those two months in more than a decade.