Believe it or not, it's happening. President Trump signed the order to built the wall. It's time to estimate the cost.
The Donald Trump's Wall Calculator is an attempt to simulate the cost of the project and a result of 6 weeks of a research and design process performed by Mateusz Mucha (Omni Calculator's founder) and Tadeusz Zwoliński — a civil engineer from The Warsaw University of Technology. Feel free to tweak any values in the white fields. Click on the "advanced mode" to see everything in a greater detail.
It was not an easy task — Donald Trump has not provided a detailed plan - pretty much all we've heard is how high and beautiful it would be. The height changed with time, going from 35 feet to even 80 feet tall. Many aspects of the project make it impractical if not impossible to make. In reality this would also be a huge project and it's next to impossible to estimate the actual cost (it's been stressed by many experts). Keeping that in mind, we made several assumptions to come up with our model:
For technical reasons (it's too hot), we can't make the wall on-site. Our best bet is make out of precast panels produced at plants as close to the border as possible. Our cheapest bet is to produce T-shaped panels, similar to the ones used to secure the Bagram base and most other US military bases. The difference is that in the case of our structure, a part of the wall is buried in the ground. One reason for that is that our wall is significantly taller. The other is that it makes it harder to dig a tunnel below it. The drawing on the right shows several panels placed next to each other. In comparison to regular retaining walls, the foundation may be smaller, as there are no significant forces working against the surface. According to our simulations, the wall will survive even very strong winds.
Donald Trump made several claims as to how high the wall would be. It started at 35-45 feet and went up all the way to 90 feet. Interestingly, the claims went higher and higher with time — Someone ought to come up with a theory of the inflationary nature of imaginary walls. We're a bit closer to the ground, so we made it 40 feet high to cut costs.
The panels are reinforced with steel rebar, which takes 1.8% of the total volume of panels. To make things simpler, instead of splitting manufacturing costs into the cost of resources (steel and concrete) and then add a production cost on top of it, we went with a model where we just provide a price of one cubic yard of reinforced, precast concrete. We called a few precast plants and asked for prices of reinforced panels and their dimensions. The closest thing to what we've designed was sold to a customer at $635 per cubic yard. We figured that with our scale we could probably get it much cheaper and settled at $350.
After the panels are produced, they need to be transported to the border. Looking at the map of concrete plants shown in Bernstein's report, we estimated the average distance from the plant to the construction site would be 150 miles. Again, we went with a conservative rate of $4 per mile (consider the size and weight of these elements and the fact that whatever roads they would build there wouldn't be proper highways). We simplified things significantly and omitted all potential problems - how would those elements fit on trucks? How would driving on low-quality roads impact the cost?
Assembly. In the simplest form, we need an excavator to dig the hole, a (big enough) crane to set it in place, a bulldozer to bury it and a few regular workers to assist with these works.
Guards. Part of the calculator is devoted to estimating the cost of guards that would be stationed along the wall. In the end, we decided to set the number of guards to zero, as some may feel it's not fair to take it into account. Nevertheless, let's go over our reasoning behind the estimation. According to this report, an annual total cost of one policeman is $149,369. It includes the salary, contributions to the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund, healthcare, general liability and worker's compensation insurance, overtime, medicare, uniform allowance, tuition reimbursement, unemployment insurance and supervision. If you'd like to have the cost of guards to be taken into account, simply increase the "placement of guards" counter from 0 to a higher value.
Maintenance. It is always the biggest part of the total cost of the project. It is generally accepted that the construction itself is 10%-20% of large project with a lifespan of 25 years, the maintenance being the remaining 80-90%. We'll take the lower value, since the wall is a fairly simple construction. 80% of the total means it's 400% of the construction costs. 400/25 = 16. Let's give Mr. President a rebate and settle at 15%.
As a bonus, we tried to come up with a list of things that we could do instead of building the wall. Keep in mind that numbers provided below are pulled from the calculator at the time of writing this and may change in the future.
For starters, we could buy 11 billion free meals for homeless people (source). There are 1.56 million homeless folks in the US - we could give all of them 3 meals a day for the next 7 years. Or we could build 200 thousand schools in Angola. Or just send over 50 million African kids to schools. Don’t care for children in Africa? No worries, let’s pay for 4-year public college tuition for 3.8 million Americans (source). Or raise 200,000 American kids from their birth until adulthood (source). Or provide clean drinking water to 700 million people. It may not sound like a problem to people in the Western world, but once you’re deprived of clean water it becomes the issue number one. We could treat 95,000 HIV patients for their entire lives (source).
We could also plant 206 million trees (source), insure nearly 57 million people in the US (source) or buy 78 million laptops for schoolkids (source). Yes, every kid in primary, middle or high school could carry one and a half computers. Why? Because we could. We could host 4.2 summer olympics (although I wouldn’t recommend doing it even once) (source), build hospitals with 14,5 thousand beds in the US or nearly 730 thousand in India (source for both) (yep, they’re good at not spending too much) or take care of 2.8 million veterans (source). Are you a fan of science? How about financing almost 9 Mars Science Laboratory missions? Yeah, we could send the Curiosity rover to the freaking Mars 9 times (source), this is how you make America great. Or finally, if we took John Oliver's counter-proposal into consideration, we could buy 291 million waffle irons, which are nearly as effective in keeping immigrants and drugs away from the country as any wall we could possibly build.
We thought that talking about billions of dollars doesn’t mean much to a regular person, since these amounts are hard to imagine. We thought “let’s show what that cash could buy instead”, but these numbers are still huge. Let’s have just one takeaway from this calculator, then: for the money it would take Donald Trump’s wall, we could completely solve multiple problems that are far from imaginary.