Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
So far, few of the firms that have expressed interest in the border wall project have the resources to pull it off.
On Febuary 24, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency announced a solicitation for the design and construction of the U.S. border wall with Mexico. That offer, which drew the interest of scores of companies, gave a deadline for wall prototype concepts of Friday, March 10. But the agency has since extended the deadline to March 20 and changed the overall scope of the project—details of which will be made available on March 8.
The list of interested vendors now runs more than 350 in number. Project-management companies, concrete suppliers, and fence-builders have thrown their hats in the ring. There are also a few trickster artists and some companies totally unrelated to the task (among them: National Public Radio). Missing from its ranks, however, are a number of the nation’s largest defense contractors and global engineering firms—the kinds of companies that might be expected to bid on an infrastructure project of this magnitude.
For example, Raytheon, a major defense contractor, appeared on the roll call of interested vendors a few days after it was originally posted. But as of last last week, the company’s information no longer appeared on the list. Raytheon did not reply to a request for comment.
Bechtel, which claims to be the largest construction and civil engineering company in the nation, is also sitting this one out. “There’s a lot of companies out there who’ve registered their interest, and as you saw from that list, we’re not on that list,” says Adi Raval, global corporate head of media affairs.
Lorrie Paul Crum, vice president for corporate communications for CH2M, a global engineering company, said she was not aware of any intent at the company to bid to build the wall. Boeing, a firm with vast experience working as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, has also not signaled its interest in the project. A $1 billion contract between DHS and Boeing for the “virtual fence” dubbed SBInet was canceled in 2010 after the project was deemed a failure. (Boeing did not respond to an inquiry.)
One company that is highlighting its lack of interest in the project is AECOM, a multinational engineering firm that posted $17 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2016; Engineering News Record has named it #1 among its top 500 design firms for the last 7 years running. Chris Bauer, an executive vice president for AECOM, made a point of calling CityLab to note that the firm’s name was nowhere to be found on the list of interested companies.
An official at another international building company echoed that sentiment. “We have no interest in the border wall,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak for the entire firm. “As most builders know, it’s suicide."
Corporate concerns with the wall range from a lack of clear information about the scope of the procurement to concerns about the risks of signing onto such a notorious project, according to conversations with several global companies. “No ban, no wall” remains a powerful rallying cry for opponents of President Donald Trump’s divisive strategies for shoring up the nation’s borders.
Leo A Daly, an international design firm, initially signaled its interest in the project by joining the list of vendors. In an internal memo, though, the company clarified that it would not be pursuing the project. Like many companies in the architecture, engineering, and construction space, Leo A Daly attaches its name to any federal pre-solicitation that fits its capabilities. Its reasons for doing so are varied, the memo explained—“to gather more information, to help in planning, or simply to stay posted on important developments in the marketplace.” But the memo spelled out in no uncertain terms its position: “LEO A DALY did not and will not bid on this project.”
Caddell Construction, a global building firm whose name still appears on the list of interested vendors, may not take any further steps toward submitting a prototype design. Caddell marketing director Terry Willis says that he could not explain why the company was listed as an interested vendor in the first place. “Of course, in a general way, we’re interested bidders,” Willis says. “We do federal work for almost all the agencies. We would certainly examine any opportunity like that thoroughly.” While Caddell works as a contractor for a wide variety of federal agencies, especially the State Department, Willis says that no one at Caddell has had any conversations about the border wall yet. “We know nothing about the specifications,” he says. “We know little more than anybody else does. We’ll evaluate it when it comes out to see if it’s something we are competitive for.”
In the end, the competition to design a prototype for the wall may not ever lead beyond the design stages. DHS updated its presolicitation late last week, extending the timeline on the initial phase. Finalists, who will be asked to answer the full request for proposals (RFP), will be named on May 3. The process may end there: The post now reads much more like a design competition than a notice of a federal procurement.
“The intent of this procurement is 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,” reads the updated presolicitation. (DHS did not return a request for comment.)
Dozens and dozens of companies, from small mom-and-pop construction outfits to national contractors, will no doubt pursue the formal bid when it opens on Wednesday. Virtually any of these companies could erect a fence or build a steel-reinforced concrete wall, barring certain challenges in the environment.
But the true challenge in building Trump’s border wall, however it is construed, will almost certainly come in the complex logistics of staging a vast interstate construction project—plus the litigation that is bound to follow it. Of the firms likely to possess the reach and resources to do this work, none has affirmatively identified itself as an interested bidder.
So far, no major firm reached by CityLab has confirmed a positive interest in the DHS bid. That may change as details emerge.
Amanda Kolson Hurley contributed reporting to this story.