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Border wall prototypes up, but prospects uncertain for more wall building

The first stage of President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall project ended Thursday, while the prospects for any more wall construction — and even what type of wall — remain uncertain.

Customs and Border Protection Acting Deputy Commissioner Ron Vitiello pronounced the monthlong construction of eight prototypes along a section of Otay Mesa complete during a news briefing conducted in the shadow — literally — of one of the structures.

With the 30-foot-tall walls looming behind and beside him Vitiello said the walls will now undergo a period of testing to determine how effective the designs are.

From that the agency expects to come up with a kind of master design for a new wall, one that draws on what works and what does not in the built prototypes.

That design would be for both the primary wall right along the international border, and a secondary wall set several hundred feet north.

“We are going to look at everything that is reflected here,” Vitiello said, referring to the eight walls, “and then put out a new design standard for the immediate border barrier and the secondary barrier.”

Each of the walls will be tested to see how well it deters climbing, tunneling and can withstand tampering by tools and machines. That testing and subsequent evaluation will begin a month from now, and take another one to two months, he said.

The anti-climbing and tunneling tests will be done on the walls built on Otay Mesa, he said. The test to withstand breaching will be done on a set of mock-ups — smaller versions of each wall — that are at a different location in San Diego he did not disclose.

The walls on display were built by six companies who won out in a national competition to build prototypes that launched in the spring. Instead of picking a winning design from the group as initially thought it now appears concepts of one or more walls will be combined into a new design.

However the future of any wall building remains in doubt. While CBP had $20 million for the prototype project, the cost of building a wall across the border — or even large portions of it — is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

Congress is deadlocked on funding, with Democrats and many Republicans from border states opposing funding.

Since Jan. 25, when a Trump executive order called for construction of the wall along the southwestern border, officials have downplayed the idea of building across every mile of the border, which is marked by varied terrain, often rugged and rarely trafficked. Trump himself said the wall had to be “see-through” and some Border Patrol officials indicated a preference for see-through designs so they can observe better what is on the other side.

Vitiello declined to get into speculation about price, but said the need for the wall was real. He said appropriating money was up to Congress. “I’m no expert on price,” he said. “We think this works. We think it is valuable to do. We think it’s important.”

The walls erected on a dusty piece of Otay Mesa include four fashioned from concrete, and four from other materials. Two are see-though — with bollard-type posts on the bottom section topped by a solid section.

Five of the walls have some kind of structure on top that appears designed to impede climbing, or grappling. One is topped by barbed wire, others have rounded steel fixtures on top.

All are sunk at least 6 feet into the ground to deter easy tunneling. Vitiello also said the designs call for sensor cables under the ground to alert agents of someone approaching the wall or attempting to breach it.

There has been speculation since the project began Sept. 26 that Trump would visit the site, physical proof of his major campaign promise come to life.

Vitiello deferred when asked if Trump would come. “I’m not in charge of the president’s schedule,” he said. He also did not directly answer if Trump would pick the winner, something the president has said previously.

The project has become a draw for journalists and politicians, both domestically and internationally. News crews from Germany, Korea and elsewhere have descended on the mesa, shuttled out to the building site two or three times a day by Border Patrol agents.

“There is worldwide interest in this,” CBP spokesman Carlos Diaz said.

There was also interest just a stone’s throw from the walls in Mexico. As Vitiello got a briefing on each of the walls before the news conference, a group of a half-dozen Mexican federal police watched, looking over the primary fence made of old Navy landing mats.

Two Border Patrol agents standing in the bed of a pickup backed up to the fence on the U.S. side chatted amiably with them. At one point Vitiello too hopped into the bed and spoke with the Mexican police.

Later he said he thanked them for helping with security on their side of the border. “We’re grateful for their help in making sure this project went off in a safe manner,” he said.

It’s unclear what will happen to the constructed prototypes, each of which cost $300,000 to $500,000 to build.

“We’re going to see what happens on the evaluations and then we’ll make a plan to use them to the best of their ability,” he said. “We’re not sure whether they stay here, whether they are part of the infrastructure system. That will be determined through the testing and evaluation phase.”


© 2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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