2020-05-06 16:27:55 UTC
May 6, 2020 at 7:39 a.m. PDT
President Trump is once more pushing to have his border wall painted black, a
design change that is projected to add at least $500 million in costs, according
to government contracting estimates obtained by The Washington Post.
The presidents determination to have the steel bollards coated in black has
fluctuated during the past several years, and military commanders and border
officials believed as recently as last fall that they had finally talked him out
of it. They consider the black paint unnecessary, costly and a significant
long-term maintenance burden, and they left it out of the original U.S. Customs
and Border Protection design specifications.
Trump has not let go of the idea, insisting that the dark color will enhance its
forbidding appearance and leave the steel too hot to touch during summer months.
During a border wall meeting at the White House last month amid the coronavirus
pandemic, the president told senior adviser Jared Kushner and aides to move
forward with the paint job and to seek out cost estimates, according to four
administration officials with knowledge of the meeting.
POTUS has changed his mind and now wants the fence painted. We are modifying
contracts to add, said one official involved in the construction effort who,
like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired.
Trump, during that meeting, directed aides to seek input from North Dakota-based
Fisher Sand and Gravel, a company the president favors. Fisher has a $400
million contract to build a section of new barrier in Arizona, an award that is
under review by the Department of Defense inspector general.
The Post obtained a copy of painting estimates that federal contracting
officials produced, and it shows costs ranging from $500 million for two coats
of acrylic paint to more than $3 billion for a premium powder coating on the
structures 30-foot steel bollards, the high end of the options the officials
The White House has not yet chosen a grade of paint, but Trump has insisted for
years that the barrier should be black to discourage climbers. He has favored a
shade known as flat black or matte black because of its heat-absorbent
The president has promoted the border wall in tweets as well as in private
conversations in recent weeks, aides say, amid criticism of the administrations
handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He has also touted the structure along
with his efforts to block immigration as a defense against the virus and a
benefit to public health.
Trump has made the border wall a pillar of his reelection pitch, promising to
finish 500 miles by early next year, a goal that will require crews to nearly
double their pace in coming months. Crews have completed about 175 miles of new
barriers so far, according to the latest CBP data.
The White House declined to comment. A White House official speaking on the
condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters said Trump thinks the black
paint would make the structure more difficult to climb and less likely to rust.
CBP did not respond to requests for comment on Trumps decision to have the wall
The steel used for the project is designed to be weather resistant, with a
30-year service life, despite exposure to intense solar radiation and extreme
temperature changes. Painting the bollards would add significant costs to what
already is one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S.
The White House has obtained about $15 billion for the project so far,
two-thirds of which has been diverted from Defense Department construction funds
and counternarcotics programs. CBP projections indicate the money will pay for
approximately 731 miles of new barriers, but those estimates did not take into
account the presidents painting plans.
Officials working on the project said the paint job risks slowing the pace of
construction, because crews will need to return to already-completed sections of
the barrier, which quickly oxidizes into an orange hue with exposure to the
Engineers also note that painting sections that are already set in concrete and
weathered will be significantly more expensive than painting the bollards in
advance of setting them in place.
Painting it before its installed would be cheaper, said Ed Zarenski, a
retired construction cost estimator in Massachusetts who worked on large public
works projects. Otherwise youll have to run a bucket truck on both sides of
One official with knowledge of the plans said it wasnt clear how the painting
crews would operate on the Mexico side of the barrier, where only a narrow strip
of land separates the two countries. Painters would potentially need to apply
the black coating using a specialized boom long enough to extend up and over the
barrier from the U.S. side.
The Trump administration had a section of new barrier in California painted
black last year, at a cost of about $1 million per mile, but U.S. troops
provided the labor for that effort, reducing costs.
The private contractors are projected to charge about $1.2 million per mile to
apply two coats of acrylic paint, estimates show. That is by far Trumps
cheapest option, but documents note that repairs to the structure will be
impossible to color-match with the acrylic paint, making welds and other patches
obvious and unsightly.
Scarring is certainly a factor in high-traffic border regions. The Post reported
last month that smuggling crews in the San Diego area sawed into the new bollard
fencing 18 times during a one-month span last year.
Other midrange paint options include a military-grade epoxy coating and sealant
used for dams, canals and other hydraulic infrastructure projects, known as
System 21, the documents show. It is highly resistant to abrasion and rust and
is amenable to welding, but the cost would be at least $4.5 million per mile.
Even more expensive would be a black powder coating, a process commonly used to
paint cars and appliances because of its sleek appearance. It would cost $6.8
million per mile to apply, according to the government estimates.
Trump told military commanders and border officials to research different
painting options and to consult with Fisher in particular.
Last year, after Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) heavily promoted Fisher to the
president as a cheaper option for building the border wall, Trump urged aides to
give the firm a building contract. The North Dakota company and its owner have
donated to Cramer and the president, and the company sued the government when
its border wall bids were not accepted.
The U.S. Army Corps awarded the company a contract worth up to $400 million in
December to complete 31 miles of new barriers along a National Wildlife Refuge
in Arizona. After lawmakers raised concerns about White House interference in
the contracting process, the Pentagons inspector general said it would audit
the Fisher deal.