Alex Brandon/AP

The government seeks contractors for design prototypes of a border wall with Mexico, a project that’s (probably!) still a pipe dream.

The federal government has taken its first step toward building a wall along the southern border with Mexico: On Friday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency announced a solicitation for the design and construction of prototype wall structures for the border.

Even as the White House is planning to sign a new immigration order to correct the flawed rollout of its ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, the administration is moving forward on the centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s campaign—his pledge to build a great wall running along the 2,000-mile border, and make Mexico pay for it.

But any reality will almost certainly fall short of Trump’s sea-to-sea engineering marvel. Mexico has said emphatically that the country will not pay for it. The White House has floated a tax on Mexican imports, while Republicans in Congress are mulling a border-adjustment tax, independent from the wall. Mexico plans to meet any import tariff tit for tat, suggesting a potential trade war or the disruption of the complex supply chains that rule North American manufacturing. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has estimated that the wall will cost $21.6 billion.

The pay-for is only part of the problem. The closer that Trump’s wall comes to resembling a true wall, the more likely it is that it will be impossible to build. An engineering firm with the capacity and federal experience to build a true wall stretching across the border with Mexico would be risking its reputation on this project, given the divisive nature of the Trump administration's decisions on immigration and security. That is to say nothing of the threat of litigation slowing or hampering the project. Then there is the fact that Congress has not appropriated any funds for such a wall.

Ana Teresa Fernandez, a Mexican artist, paints the Sonora border wall in Nogales, Mexico, sky blue as a part of “Borrando la Frontera” (“Erasing the Border”), an art installation. (Valeria Fernandez, File/AP)

Konstantin Kakaes, the former Mexico City bureau chief for The Economist and a fellow at the foundation New America, estimates that the cost of building Trump’s wall would be higher than the government thinks: nearly $40 billion. That assumes a wall of steel-reinforced concrete rising 60 feet high, with 10 feet below ground, running for 1,000 miles along the stretch of border where natural barriers (such as mountains) do not already exist.

Of course, the wall that Trump builds may not be a wall at all. Building it may mean adding to the fence that already runs along 653 miles of the border. It could be a “wall” that amounts to additional Border Protection agents or more DHS resources for electronic surveillance.

But Trump has said, over and over, that he wants to build a wall—a “big, beautiful wall”—and there are reasons to take Trump at his word. He takes pride in his hotels and golf courses, luxury assets that represent land-use and real-estate deals. The wall is bound to be a pet project for the developer-in-chief. His personal attention may not be a boon: Bloomberg described Trump’s January call to the Air Force general managing the Pentagon’s 16-year-old contract with Lockheed Martin for the F-35 jet—with the CEO of rival Boeing standing in the room—as “unprecedented and potentially disruptive.”

Trump also might not relish attaching his name to a wall that’s merely figurative and declaring victory, although the administration appears to be willing to accept nuance. The DHS memo authorizing the wall called for building “in the most appropriate locations and utilizing appropriate materials and technology.” But it is hard to imagine Trump standing on the sidelines as DHS determines the future of the border.

If Trump insists on a bona fide wall, the costs could rise higher than official estimates. Building staging areas for construction (such as roads to reach remote places) will be costly. The government would need to sue landowners to seize property along the border through eminent domain in some places, notably Texas, where Republicans oppose the construction of such a wall. Litigation over the impact of a massive wall on the environment is virtually guaranteed.

According to a Reuters article based on an internal DHS report, the government hopes to finish the whole wall by the end of 2020. The DHS report allegedly factors in time for acquiring private land, but given that it can take two years or longer to get a NFL stadium built, three years for some 1,250 miles of border wall across variegated terrain seems extremely optimistic.

Haste appears to be the watchword for the bidding process as well. The formal solicitation, which will be released on March 6, will require vendors to submit conceptual prototypes by March 10; a set of finalists will be selected by March 20. These firms will then submit a full request for proposal (RFP) by March 24, with pricing including, leading up to a contract award (or awards) in mid-April.

Building Trump’s border wall means more than bidding on an infrastructure project of some level of complexity or another. It will mean taking on a contract with a deep moral significance for Americans who oppose the project. The winning contractor could enter the ranks of corporate infamy, joining the likes of Enron or Blackwater. Trump may yet get his wall, but there are a lot of strikes against it.

(Amanda Kolson Hurley contributed reporting to this story.)

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