By Jerry Pacheco
The number $18 billion seems to roll off the tongue. This is the amount that President Trump recently announced he wants Congress to budget for his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The figure certainly has a ring to it, and to realize how much money this represents, I started researching major infrastructure projects in the U.S. and doing some rudimentary calculations to see how far $18 billion would stretch. I think that this is especially relevant given President Trump’s push for infrastructure funding in other areas.
In terms of constructing new roads or resurfacing old roads, construction costs can vary greatly by state and region of the country. According to the American Road & Transportation Systems Association, constructing a two-lane, undivided road in a rural location will cost approximately $2 to $3 million per mile. In urban areas, this figure can climb to $3 to $5 million. The cost of a four-lane road in rural and suburban areas will run between $4 and $6 million, with this figure rising to $8 to $10 million in urban areas. To resurface a four-lane highway will run approximately $1.25 million per mile.
Given these approximate costs, some interesting figures can be generated. If President Trump wanted to bring prosperity to disaffected, rural locations by building more roads at an average cost of
$2.5 million per mile for a two-lane project, $18 billion dollars could be used to construct 7,200 miles of new roads. If Trump chose to focus on urban road projects, he could build, at an average of $9 million per mile, 2,000 miles of new roads. For $18 billion, 14,400 miles of the nation’s aging interstate highways could be refurbished and repaved, using a cost of $1.25 million per mile. A 14,400-mile refurbished road would stretch from the West Coast to the East Coast 4.8 times.
While researching infrastructure costs, I came across Bankrate, which is a consumer financial services company based in New York City. On its website, it lists the 10 most expensive infrastructure projects currently in the U.S., which when summed have a total price tag of $132 billion. If placed on this list, Trump’s border wall would rank third, only behind the California high-speed rail project to carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles ($68 billion), and The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would create two massive tunnels 150 feet below ground to transport water from northern to southern California ($25 billion). The next most expensive project on the list is the Texas Central Railway, which is a passenger line connecting Dallas and Houston ($10 billion). If the $18 billion were spread across the list, it would fund six of the 10 projects: deepen the Port of New Orleans ($1.2 billion); Gordie Howe International Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario ($2.1 billion); Puget Sound Gateway Project between Seattle and Tacoma ($2.8 billion); the 144-mile I-70 Corridor through Colorado’s mountains ($3.5 billion); Jasper Ocean Terminal in Savannah, Georgia ($4.5 billion). These six projects have a total price tag of $14.1 billion.
If we add the seventh project on the list, which is the Gateway Program to expand passenger rail between Newark, New Jersey and New York City ($7.5 billion), the total would be $21.6 billion, or $3.6 billion above the $18 billion Trump is asking for to build the border wall.
The $64,000 question (pardon my use of game show numbers) is whether funding $18 billion for the border wall is worth it, given the massive infrastructure needs the nation is facing. The expense has to be weighed against the opportunity cost of utilizing the money in other areas. The utility of a border-long wall and its effectiveness in preventing movement of contraband and undocumented crossers also needs to be factored into the equation. There has been no single incident of a terrorist crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to cause havoc in the U.S., and illegal crossings have been decreasing the past few years.
Ironically, if Congress grants Trump the $18 billion to spend on the wall, both branches of government would be diverting funds away from areas of the country that could sorely use a shot of government infrastructure funding to put unemployed people back to work and to reinvigorate blighted communities. In many cases, the very people that supported Trump’s presidential bid would be the people losing out on this funding.
There is a huge difference between political rhetoric on the campaign trail to attract and fire up supporters, and actually getting projects funded. It is much more difficult to convince the legislative branch of government to take money from other worthy projects in order to finance a campaign promise. This is especially true as Trump promised that Mexico, not the U.S., would be financing the construction of the border wall – a claim that Mexico has in no certain terms repudiated. And there is no hard data or studies that conclusively show how an $18 billion wall would serve the purpose of better protecting the southern border of the U.S. Even if Americans hope that it would, they need to balance this hope with the reality of its cost.