President Donald Trump is pushing ahead with his plans to construct an impenetrable border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Hundreds of companies across the country have expressed interest in helping him, lured at least in part by an estimated budget of more than $20 billion. But despite the potential windfall, only 11 New York–based firms have so far been attracted to the job.
They are contractors, architects and little-known small businesses from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, and their plans range from political statements to high-tech virtual defense barriers. Crain’s spoke to four of them. Others declined to comment, did not provide coherent proposal information or did not respond, perhaps sensing that, in New York at least, even mere talk of being part of Trump’s wall ambitions comes with risks of its own.
Local elected officials have denounced the wall, saying it runs counter to New York’s legacy as a city of immigrants. One lawmaker has even penned legislation to penalize companies that participate in the barrier’s creation. Yet despite the risk of alienating politicians—many of whom can influence which firms land municipal projects—the applicants from the city remain undeterred.
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“I see this as a business opportunity, and I’d be foolish to dismiss it for political reasons, whether I agree with it or not,” said Matthew Orent, chief operating officer at EIA, a tech-focused engineering and construction company in Long Island City that provides security for airports, seaports, transit authorities and energy companies.
But EIA isn’t in the wall-building business. Rather, the firm is looking to install a monitoring system that includes lasers, cameras and other detection devices that would be used alongside special software to automatically alert authorities of unauthorized activity on, under or above the wall. The network could also be installed in lieu of a physical barrier where the terrain is too rough to support giant slabs of concrete.
The company’s technology has been used by government agencies to prevent train accidents and intrusions at airports, Orent said, and needs only minor modifications to be used as part of the border wall. The principle behind the submission—and others from the five boroughs—is that on its own, a large concrete wall, no matter how robust, would ultimately prove insufficient to prevent illegal crossings.
OVER OR UNDER
In February U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the government agency charged with managing the wall undertaking, issued a request for information from vendors looking to participate. As of last week, 734 companies had signed up. In mid-March the agency issued a more specific request for proposals, which included the minimum-bid requirements that the reinforced concrete structure would need to be at least 18 feet high (though the department would prefer 30 feet) and run underground to a depth of at least 6 feet (see “Wall Paper”). Roughly 200 firms have so far expressed interest in submitting bids.
But the RFP detailed few other technical guidelines. Instead, it described a variety of potential breaches that the wall would need to thwart. The barrier must stymie climbers armed with ladders, grappling hooks or the type of handholds that can be affixed to the surface, often found in indoor-climbing gyms. The cement and other reinforcement materials would also need to delay for at least one hour would-be intruders armed with sledgehammers, pickaxes, car jacks and acetylene torches. Lastly, the wall should be aesthetically pleasing—on the U.S.-facing side.
After two rounds of culling during the next few months, a handful of firms will be selected to build a pair of prototypes: one 30-foot-long section to demonstrate a design’s full capabilities and a 10-foot-by-10-foot sample that officials will try to smash their way through in a test of resiliency.
But many of the companies applying for the gig have said that the government’s specifications will not be sufficient to effectively prevent illegal crossings. After all, whether the wall can stave off a jackhammer for one hour or one week is irrelevant if remote areas are not monitored. Plus, the barrier’s minimum 6-foot subterranean depth, intended to prevent tunneling, will likely prove an easy work-around. “A dog could dig that hole if you threw its bone down there,” said Dennis O’Leary, who runs DarkPulse Technologies, a Manhattan firm that uses its patented products to monitor the structural integrity of large pipelines as well as seismic activity in the rock walls of mine shafts.
O’Leary was born on the Upper East Side, where he now lives, and worked for the NYPD as a narcotics officer before getting into the security and safety business. He’s a firm believer that the border needs to be better fortified and is convinced that a wall on its own is not up to the task. His solution calls for outfitting the barrier with a network of fiber-optic cables that can be embedded in dirt, concrete or other surfaces to detect the slightest changes in the surrounding environment.
Because the RFP is open to companies offering high-tech solutions, DarkPulse is hoping that its product will catch the government’s eye. Its proposal includes laying a carpetlike network of cables along and within the barrier, allowing the feds to remotely pinpoint anyone attempting to breach the border. O’Leary estimates that the technology would cost around $88,700 per mile, or $110 million for the 1,250 miles of the 2,000-mile Southern border that is not currently barricaded.
Customs and Border Protection concurrently kicked off a second RFP process in February, and this one caught the eye of Victoria Benatar, head of her eponymous architecture firm based on East 57th Street and a part-time faculty member at The New School. Last week she was preparing a proposal in advance of the April 4 submission deadline.
“I call it the anti-wall,” she said.
Benatar’s bid comes in response to the department’s request for “other” types of border protections, a category broad enough to entice designers who don’t necessarily agree with the concept of a partition. Her plan calls for constructing a series of “cultural centers” along the path of the border, giving Americans and Mexicans a place to come together to learn about each other’s countries. “I’d rather do something that helps grow and activate the border in a positive way,” she said.
Queens architect Vijay Duggal, likewise, does not support the wall concept, but he is nonetheless interested in addressing the politically charged controversy over who will pay for it. Although Trump has repeatedly asserted that Mexico will pick up the tab, late last month the White House asked Congress to allocate $1.5 billion to begin work.
Under Duggal’s plan, however, the wall would pay for itself. In his designs, the barrier is covered in solar panels and outfitted with wind turbines that would generate massive amounts of electricity.
“I think Mexico will come as an investment partner, not as a reimburser,” he said. “It really changes the dynamics of the debate.”
Duggal said his enhancements would add about $10 billion to the baseline price tag, which the Department of Homeland Security estimated in an internal memo to be $21.6 billion. But the electricity generated would be worth $1.2 billion annually, he said, enough to pay off the wall in 30 years, a typical repayment time frame for municipal bonds. In other words, the government could issue bonds to investors, and the revenue from electricity sales could be used to pay off the debt, alleviating the need for taxpayers or a foreign country to foot the bill. The wall could also provide free power to border towns that might otherwise resent living in the shadow of the imposing partition, Duggal said.
Regardless of their intentions, the New York bidders could face roadblocks set up hundreds of miles from the nearest crossing. Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic introduced a bill that would allow the state to bar companies working on the wall from getting public contracts, a policy similar to what several other states are considering. Legislators hope the threat of retaliation will dissuade contractors across the country from working on the partition, effectively leading to a builders’ boycott.
“This legislation puts a mark in the sand of where New York values are,” said Rozic, a Democrat who represents immigrant communities in Queens, where residents have expressed alarm at the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants and attempts to restrict immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.
The bill would put any company participating in the wall’s construction on a list that would be reviewed each year by the state’s commissioner of the Office of General Services, which oversees large infrastructure projects. The chances of the proposal becoming law are slim. Nonetheless, it could serve as a warning to businesses considering bidding: Elected officials could punish companies by holding up or meddling in projects that require their approval.
While some major national companies that operate in New York, such as Tutor Perini Corp., have submitted bids, the potential political backlash may explain why other big New York–area players, such as AECOM and Skanska USA Building, aren’t on the list. “These people are titans of the world for a reason,” said one construction industry insider. “They know how to sidestep a political land mine.”
Another obstacle for New York firms may be a lack of experience, regardless of how many complex infrastructure projects they may have under their belt. That’s because the RFP asks respondents to describe their experience with “high visibility and politically contentious design-build projects.”
Design-build, a bidding process that allows engineering and construction projects to be contracted together rather than separately, is used extensively throughout the rest of the country. But not in New York, where various construction groups have long prevented the framework’s wide implementation out of fear that streamlining the building process could mean less work. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed expanding the policy in the state budget, but that won’t make up for years of lost opportunities.
Both EIA and DarkPulse have done some design-build projects, and Duggal is partnering with a Texas contractor in order to check that box. But for other local businesses, the obstacles may prove too big to surmount.