By Todd Bensman as originally published June 21, 2021 by the Center for Immigration Studies
AUSTIN, Texas – In announcing that Texas will finish the cancelled border wall construction, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott offered few details about how his state would take on such expensive and legally complicated job. Abbot, who is facing Republican primary challengers for his job later this year, issued the promise to a Republican base that is furious about a mass migration crisis thought to have been spurred by the forgiving border security policies of President Joe Biden.
But Abbot has left basic planning questions unexplained as former President Donald Trump heads to the border shortly at Abbott’s invitation, like:
How many miles? At what cost? Where’s the money for it? Where and when, exactly? Under what process of land acquisition could it be done and along what route?
Tommy Fisher, whose Fisher Industries company was one of the largest builders of the cancelled Trump wall project, recently shared his perspective on some of these matters with the Center for Immigration Studies. Fisher, in his motivation to share, would love to have a piece of the project.
Still, Fisher’s take comes with some credibility, since his company had actually built 20 miles of the federal wall east of El Paso, 61 miles in Arizona, and suffered the suspension (so far) of his federal contracts to build 43 miles near Laredo. Fisher Industries also is the company that constructed wall projects for the controversial, crowd-funded We Build The Wall organization (a three-mile segment near Mission, Texas and a half-mile segment just west of El Paso). Federal prosecutors indicted several of the organization’s principals, including the presidentially pardoned Trump acolyte Steve Bannon, for allegedly pocketing some of the public donation money. (Neither Fisher nor his construction firm are implicated in that ongoing Eastern District of New York case).
A public-private partnership the only fast way forward on 400 miles
Fisher told CIS he believes the only way Texas will be able to build the wall quickly is outside of the state’s regular contract procurement processes, which he says are notoriously plodding. The only way is with an alternative public-private partnership arrangement in which landowners sell right of way to construction companies for routing, Fisher said. That way leaves less room for obstructing litigation or bureaucratic processes.
“A private company can wheel and deal much better than a state,” Fisher said. “Especially when you’re the design builder. You don’t have these set lanes.”
Indeed, after the CIS interview with Fisher, the governor messaged that the wall will be built in some public-private partnership arrangement with private land owners, though he has offered little rationale for this choice or details.
Fisher filled in some of the rationale.
“If they go into regular procurement, it’ll never get done. It takes fricken forever in Texas. It’s one of the slowest places in the country, outside of the east coast,” Fisher said. “There’s only one way; they have to enter some kind of public-private partnership.”
Also, legally speaking, the Texas construction contract procurement process could be swapped out for a public-private partnership arrangement under the state of emergency that Gov. Abbott declared June 1 in response to the illegal immigration surge at the Texas-Mexico border, Fisher explained.
“Because of the state of emergency, we believe the governor has the right to do it,” he said.
On June 16, Gov. Abbott directed that a project manager be hired to oversee construction and planning, including identifying state lands and private lands where the wall can be built.
Perhaps filling in some detail, Fisher said he knows enough landowners in Texas ready to do that to provide a fairly continuous wall right along the river for at least 400 miles, about 66 percent of the border from Armistead Dam to Brownsville. And this route would be where landowners actually want their wall, as close as possible to the Rio Grande, rather than the highly unpopular federal route, which often cut deeply through private lands two or three miles in from the river.
These interior routes were unpopular because cutting lands in this way effectively left properties unsecured for drug trafficking and illegal immigration, Fisher said.
Not all Texas landowners with riverfront property would want to sell right-of-way for various reasons, to include political ones, and some land is federal, so those are probably out of contention, he said.
But Fisher, obviously selling his company hard here, feels Fisher Industries could get a lot of wall built with the landowners who he already knows dearly want it.
“I feel that in the next three years we could get from 300 to 400 miles done from Armistead [Dam] down to Brownsville, which still leaves 200-300 miles of federal land or private land that would not go along with the wall,” he said.
Fisher says that neither he nor anyone in his company has had direct talks with Gov. Abbott.
Where’s the money?
After the recently concluded state legislative session, which occurs every other year in Texas, state leaders announced they would reallocate $250 million of already budgeted money as a “down payment” on the wall.
At a press event, Abbott said the money would cover “early expenses” where state officials are working with private landowners in South Texas who want the wall on their property. The governor also sent President Biden a letter asking him to return private lands taken from Texas under eminent domain for the wall project.
But hundreds of miles of wall will cost billions and no one is saying what a Texas wall of any length might cost.
Fisher, though, says he thinks the cost for the 400 miles he could build on private riverfront lands is probably about $8 billion, about $20 million a mile.
The Trump administration, paying between $25 and $35 million per mile, was playing with big federal government money. Texas isn’t in that league, of course, but enjoys a giant economy with a two-year budget of $248 billion and also a vaunted so-called “Rainy Day Fund” savings account for emergencies. That “economic stabilization fund” account stands at about $11.6 billion.
The state set up a website for those, including landowners, who might want to contribute to the project.
Fisher said he is aware of an idea floating around that interior Republican-controlled states might contribute on grounds that Texas border security is national security.
“Everywhere is a border town once they let people go all over the country,” he said.