Republican and Democratic senators on Wednesday blasted the General Services Administration and the FBI over costs, press leaks and changes in security requirements in its redrawn plan for a new FBI headquarters.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso complained at a hearing that senators learned of the GSA’s abrupt cancellation of a previous FBI plan last year through press reports rather than from the agencies. He also cited the missed deadlines on that plan, which had been more than a decade in the making.
The GSA unveiled in early February a $3.3 billion proposal for an FBI headquarters in Washington. GSA had planned to consolidate more than a dozen FBI offices in the D.C. area into an office campus in Maryland or Virginia. The two states were competing to become home to the project, but the Trump administration dropped that proposal last July.
“The federal government has already spent over $20 million and 13 years planning for an FBI headquarters,” Barrasso said. “The revised plan starts the process from scratch.”
GSA had also said two years ago that it could pay for the new campus largely from funds from a swap in which a developer would get the prime real estate occupied by the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue and build the new facility. It also involved around $1 billion in appropriations. The expectations of a multi-billion dollar benefit from the deal eroded in recent years and the GSA now estimates that it would have included costs of $3.6 billion.
“This committee didn’t have the full costs before,” said Dan Mathews, commissioner of the GSA Public Building Service.
Barasso called it “disturbing” that he had never seen the newly released $3.6 billion estimated cost for campus consolidation project. “They aren’t costs the committee has ever seen before,” he said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said the property swap was the idea of the Obama administration.
“We didn’t like it,” he said, but noted that the suggestion that the full costs weren’t known before was a bad defense. He said building in Virginia or Maryland would still cost less than the new proposal.
“We gave you more money than you asked for,” he said. “We should be breaking ground today in Virginia or Maryland.”
Senators said the GSA and FBI had previously said the bureau needed a large suburban campus to provide security benefits, including more distance from its perimeter than at the downtown Hoover building, a remote truck inspection facility and a detached visitor center.
The FBI had told senators that “there is no adequate way” to protect the Hoover building from an attack because of its street front façade, Cardin said.
“A 300-foot setback is intuitively better than a 75-foot setback,” acknowledged Richard L. Haley II, assistant director of the FBI Finance Division. “There are other ways of getting to some of those security outputs.”
The current plan not only would demolish the Hoover building and construct a new headquarters on the same site for 8,300 employees, but would also move 2,300 Washington area FBI employees to Alabama, West Virginia and Idaho. The campus proposal would have housed all 10,600 area employees.
Besides questioning previous costs of the old proposal, the decision to move 2,300 employees to other facilities made construction on the existing Hoover site not only more feasible, but preferable, Mathews said.
The FBI and GSA had asked for, but had not received, $882 million in funding and that financing shortfall made it difficult to proceed with the proposed swap plan with a developer. “The legal and operational risks were simply too great,” Matthews said.
Moving more personnel to other locations will be a boon to the FBI’s operations, Haley said.
“We strongly believe that a multi-headquarter set of sites will enhance our resiliency and operational effectiveness,” he said.
Senators also complained about the proposal the agencies had sent the committee two weeks ago, both because it had been due in November and because it was, according to ranking member Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, “a 22-page PowerPoint.”
It will be “closer to the August recess” before GSA expects to have a detailed prospectus to release for the new proposal, Mathews said.
The administration told Congress that it would use part — $2.2 billion — of the added nondefense discretionary spending allowed for fiscal 2018 from the bipartisan budget deal for a new FBI building.