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Trump border wall misses start date

Phillip MolnarContact Reporter

The Trump administration has yet to award contracts to build prototypes of a U.S.-Mexico border wall even though construction was originally pegged to begin this week in San Diego, public records show.

While money for a full wall along the 1,900-mile Mexican border has not been approved, Congress did allocate $20 million for prototypes that attracted hundreds of bidders from across the country.

Homeland Security had planned to begin construction on four to eight 30-foot tall prototypes Thursday near Otay Mesa. The location was still a dusty field this week, and Customs and Border Protection, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from the San Diego Union-Tribune, said no contracts have been awarded.

Border Protection spokesman Rick Pauza confirmed Friday that bids are still being reviewed but that prototype designs “will be selected for construction in Summer 2017.”

The agency declined to say what caused the delay, when bids would be awarded, if San Diego was still the starting location or if business names of contract winners would be released. The agency also would not say if it had reviewed options for a “solar wall,” an idea recently promoted by President Trump.

Efforts to get more information on the border wall process is the subject of at least two lawsuits.

American Oversight, a left-leaning watchdog group in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court against four federal agencies. It says it has not received responses to Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests for a construction schedule, any analysis of using eminent domain, communication between Mexico and U.S. regarding plans, as well as any materials used in discussion with the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose territory in Arizona and Mexico would be separated by the wall.

“American Oversight is deemed to have exhausted its administrative remedies . . . and is now entitled to judicial action,” the lawsuit said.

As a matter of policy, Homeland Security does not comment on pending legislation, said spokesman David Lapan.

The complaint argues the agencies have failed to meet deadlines to respond to requests or make determinations regarding its requests. In addition to requesting a response to its FOIAs, the lawsuit also asks the federal government to pay American Oversight’s legal fees.

“This is an administration that is pinching pennies everywhere, so they should have to account for how they are spending these,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight.

The $20 million to pay for the prototypes was taken from money in the budget originally set aside for mobile video surveillance used by Customs and Border Protection, said the Democratic staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs.

A second lawsuit was filed the day before American Oversight by the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group that is seeking public records detailing what environmental impact analysis has been done in preparation for building prototypes in San Diego.

The lawsuit argues the Otay Mountain prototype area includes vernal pools and is habitat to several listed threatened and endangered species, including the Quino checkerspot butterfly and San Diego fairy shrimp.

It also said Homeland Security and Border Protection had not provided documents for FOIA requests.

Prototypes must be 30 feet tall, can’t be climbed and constructed to prevent digging below the wall for at least 6 feet. Roughly 460 companies replied to requests for proposals to build the wall prototypes, including 23 in San Diego County.

Solar Panels

President Trump has been floating the idea of using solar panels to pay for the border wall, a keystone of his campaign. At a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, the president said he would use solar panels to build the wall.

“I’ll give you an idea that no one has heard about yet,” he said. “We’re thinking of building the wall as a solar wall so it creates energy and pays for itself. This way, Mexico will have to pay much less money.”

Las Vegas-based Gleason Partners submitted a proposal for a solar panel wall in March that argued it would cut down on the cost to build and pay for infrastructure needs once it is up and running. Owner Thomas Gleason said Thursday that while he’s not sure if he’s in the running for a government contract, it’s OK as long as he got the president’s attention.

“Trump will soon start realizing he can skin his high rise buildings with solar,” he said, “and then I will get all my just rewards, because our solar windows and walls will become a high priority in government construction.”

At least one person who knows about solar has researched Trump’s idea already and he says taxpayers would never get paid back. Gordon Johnson, an analyst at Axiom Capital Management, wrote in a research note that a 40-foot-high wall with 13.3 million 21-square-foot solar panels could generate $221 million a year.

Without adjusting for inflation, the wall could be paid back in 125 years using the $20 billion cost estimate from Homeland Security (although other estimates have been higher). However, when adjusted for inflation and the time value of money, taxpayers would never be able to recoup the cost because after year 58 profit would decrease by at least $1 million a year.

A Bloomberg News analysis of Johnson’s work found that even after 215 years taxpayers would still be short $25.6 billion in real dollars.

Next Steps

There is still legislation working its way through California government that would punish border wall builders.

Senate Bill 30 would prevent the state from doing business with any company or person that works on the border wall. It has been referred to the Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review to be read in July. Its author is State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.

Assembly Bill 946 — from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, and others — would require California’s pension funds to divest from companies that work on the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The bill will likely be heard in January, Fletcher’s staff said Thursday.

In San Diego County, about 46 miles of the 60-mile stretch along the border has fencing, including 13 miles of double fencing in high-traffic urban areas.

The Trump administration has requested in the fiscal 2018 budget $1.6 billion for 14 miles of secondary barriers in San Diego County.

Videographer Alejandro Tamayo contributed to this article.

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