A U.S. worker inspects a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 9, 2016. Picture taken from the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez)
When the Trump Administration begins to advance the creation of a secure southern border this spring they will be conscious of the need to avoid a contentious Congressional debate over how to pay for that barrier. They will want a pragmatic and proven solution to the design, financing and construction of that wall. They will find it in a construct that has been used to bring other infrastructure projects in the United States and around the world from concept to concrete: a public private partnership (P3).
In response to the White House challenge, a consortium of design, energy and security experts is proposing to use P3 to construct the border barrier that would significantly reduce the need for public dollars required to build the structure. The idea will not be a surprise to the President as he has personally demonstrated to a perplexed City of New York how to leverage private initiative, work ethic and know how to repair the legendary but chronically broken Central Park ice skating rink. He knows that a P3 would reveal and implement productivity the federal government is rarely capable of achieving.
The most critical part of the border runs approximately 300 miles and engineers project that the cost of a barrier along that particular stretch would be some $4 billion. Using a P3 to gain access to the financial markets, the consortium proposes to install an estimated 1.5 million feet of solar panels atop the structure that would generate an estimated 2 million megawatt hours annually, or the equivalent of a 6,000 acre solar farm (using the Agua Caliente model). While energy has become a commodity, it is believed that the power generated by these panels would be sold to the nation’s electrical grid, providing sufficient revenue to address much of the cost of construction with financing over a 25 year period.
The P3 project would have the freedom to use prefabricated elements manufactured off site by the lowest bidders on both sides of the American-Mexico border and the energy could be sold to both Mexican and American grids. It also encourages innovative architecture and assembly techniques to find and incentivize efficiencies.
The power of P3 is still unappreciated by far too many, but other parts of the world embrace its role. A KPMG study of a school P3 building program in the United Kingdom reported that the rate of improvement in educational attainment was 44% faster in schools rebuilt using a P3 than those modernized through the more traditional government approach. They discovered that the P3 buildings were brighter, more open, included room for wellness centers, community rooms and designs that encouraged conversation, motivation and greater performance. Innovation was at the heart of a P3 design. These lessons extend far beyond the classroom, embracing roads, bridges, mass transit and public water systems.
To be clear, creating a “Green Machine Border Barrier” using P3 will not mean that the taxpayer has zero financial obligation. Under this plan Washington will need to be responsible for securing any private property for the barrier, along with a myriad of other costs. But this much is clear: While P3 is not a panacea, it can be a strategic tool in short circuiting the raucous Congressional debate over financing the wall, seriously defray the cost to the taxpayer, allow the Trump Administration to insist on a firm construction schedule and budget certainty and embrace an approach that can be replicated from New York’s failing Hudson River transit tunnels to funding Los Angeles’ water recycling projects.
Applying the power of P3 to this project creates more than a strong national border. It creates a practical, successful policy roadmap to address the far larger issue of how, who and when our nation will repair America’s infrastructure.
Bruce Blakeman is a principal of Sustainable Technology LLC, which is proposing to construct the southern barrier using this P3 mode.