Car parking is a bugaboo across government, and the NSA is a case in point

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Agencies with big campuses often have parking that’s either not enough, or people have long hikes from distant spaces. That’s the case at the National Security Agency’s big headquarters campus at Fort Meade, Maryland. For decades it’s been a source of angst for employees. The Office of Inspector General took a look at the parking situation....


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne

Agencies with big campuses often have parking that’s either not enough, or people have long hikes from distant spaces. That’s the case at the National Security Agency’s big headquarters campus at Fort Meade, Maryland. For decades it’s been a source of angst for employees. The Office of Inspector General took a look at the parking situation. IG Robert Storch joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with details.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Storch, always good to have you on.

Robert Storch: It’s always great to be on Tom, appreciate the interest in our work.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about parking at the NSA. When you say NSA Washington in the report, that means pretty much Fort Meade, correct?

Robert Storch: Correct. We were looking at the NSA facilities at Fort Meade. And it’s a place where there have been concerns expressed about parking, frankly, for decades. And then we focused in on a number of initiatives, one of which was the construction and then destruction of a parking garage that had to be destroyed without ever being used.

Tom Temin: But in general, there are more parking requirements than there are parking spaces. Is that a good way to put it?

Robert Storch: Well there have been a number of concerns expressed about parking over the years. One does relate to lack of spaces, although we’re talking about a number of different facilities at Fort Meade. And so there are a total number of spaces that may be adequate, but then you look at the distribution of spaces and where they are and whether they’re conveniently located to the facilities where people work. And then another concern that has been expressed over the years really goes more to the equity issue. And there’s certain groups, seniors, executives, that sort of thing, that may have one type of parking and whether there’s abuse of that, and fairness in parking allocation.

Tom Temin: Okay, we’ll talk about all of those issues. We should point out Fort Meade is a self enclosed, very large piece of property. There’s no Metro there, there might be buses, but if you get to the front gate, you could have a long, long drive to the specific office or building that you are actually going to enter — correct?

Robert Storch: Right, that’s correct. And that’s one of the things we do talk about in the report is while the agency may be meeting the overall parking requirements for NSA Washington, the absence of convenient transportation makes it problematic when the parking is dispersed in the way it is.

Tom Temin: Yes, and the first you have to get through the front gat,e and having been a visitor there a couple of times, that’s no easy task either. But once you’re through, it would be nice to, I guess, park close to where your building is. So let’s talk about the distribution of spaces. If there are sufficient numbers, say 20,000 people a day, and there’s 20,000 spaces, the issue is that in the large concentrations of people, there are not adequate spaces.

Robert Storch: So it depends a little bit upon which location you’re looking at. But for instance, we looked at what are considered the big four buildings. And there’s actually a nice drawing in the report of this with some concentric circles, that shows that the majority of those spaces are located in places that don’t meet the standards for current new construction as to how close spaces are supposed to be to where people enter their workplace. Now, the agency does have shuttles and uses overflow a lot to try to ameliorate that. But one of the big themes of the report is that it does not have overall goals, plans and strategies to achieve them with regard to parking and transportation. So these initiatives are really done in more of an ad hoc way.

Tom Temin: Yeah. So if you’re in the far north corner of WCPS lot one, and you’re going into the big main building, you’ve got a heck of a hike.

Robert Storch: You may have a heck of hake, that’s true.

Tom Temin: Right. And primarily, you looked at the management of parking and the way that the people, the powers that be that run Fort Meade, look at this and deal with it, and it has not been an effective process, has it?

Robert Storch: Right. This has been an issue that has been around here at NSA-W for a long time. We look back at newsletters, very interesting way to look at it, going back to 1954 and found that more than half of them reference parking with the earliest back in 54. So literally for decades, this has been coming up. And when we looked at this, we found that in fact, the agency does have a master plan, it does do what they call fiscal year development plans every five years, but that parking was not really prioritized. And in fact, we chose five initiatives, parking and transportation initiatives to examine. And only one of those was even included in one of the fiscal year development plans. So really, while the agency, as I say, has made efforts through overflow parking and shuttles, we found that it has not either designated a single organization to be responsible in this area, or that it had not really gone through and strategically looked at the parking and transportation needs, tried to develop a plan and then strategies to achieve it.

Tom Temin: Because that location has been dynamic over the years. I think the Defense Information Systems Agency moved from somewhere else and parked right in there. And then you also mentioned in the report that a lot of people were cleared out of leased buildings and consolidated into government-owned on that site. I mean, the population has been growing, and so the traffic has been growing.

Robert Storch: Right. And one of the things we do talk about in the report is the additional stresses on parking here from potential growth, both because as you say, of the move from lease to government-owned space, and because of the elevation of US Cyber Command, which may require more people in more parking as well. And so this has been a significant issue here. And one that of course is of importance to the workforce as is reflected in the newsletters I mentioned. We also quoted in the report from a number of internal blogs and social media that are available to personnel here and a number of instances where there’s significant frustration, I think it’s fair to say, regarding the parking situation.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Robert Storch, he’s inspector general of the National Security Agency. And there have been some sadly failed gambits, you mentioned a modular parking structure that was built and demolished. What happened there?

Robert Storch: Yeah. So back in 2014, the agency identified a proprietary modular parking structure. And it’s something that had not been built in the United States before, basically, it didn’t require a foundation, it would go on top of the asphalt. And for your listeners who may be interested, we actually have pictures in our report of the patent owners rendering of what it would look like and then what was actually constructed here at Fort Meade. And it was supposed to add 150 to 250 spaces as constructed, it ended up that only added 87 spaces, and the cost per space went up from 25,000 to 34,000 each. And so they constructed this, but then what followed was a period of about a year of testing, testing by internal firms selected by the contractor and then testing by three independent firms that address safety concerns that have been expressed. Ultimately, all three of the independent reviews, which themselves cost about $120,000, found significant concerns, and ultimately determined that the structure, at least absent more testing, could not be determined safe to one of the architectural firms recommended. And this is a quote, that the structure remain closed to personnel until it is verified as meeting all code requirements specified in the contract. Failure to resolve the deficiencies and identified issues prior to occupancy could result in structural collapse and loss of life. So faced with that, the agency ultimately determined to demolish the structure, it went ahead and paid in full because it determined that having to go through and fight and potential legal fees would be even greater. And then it paid another $500,000 to actually demolish the structure as well. So we ended up determining that all of that, totaling $3.6 million, ended up being wasted, a significant amount of money, maybe not huge in the context of some budgets, but on the other hand, we found it to be reflective of some of the lack of internal controls and processes to identify and address these issues, to assess risk and either accepted or mitigated.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I wonder if any of those things have been built and are operating anywhere else.

Robert Storch: We did not identify this specific contractor involved. But we do say in the report that it had not been built anywhere in the United States.

Tom Temin: Oh, great, probably in Afghanistan, but that’s a different inspector general. And to the key to park program, which was I guess, supposed to have lights or something to tell people where they could find the space. That was, again, not a gigantic expenditure, but must be frustrating, because it doesn’t work.

Robert Storch: Right. Yeah, that’s one of the five initiatives that we looked at, in which we found there were significant management and control deficiencies. That one, as you say, was one of these parker space counter systems, you may have seen them at airports or the like. This one was a little different, all designed to help people locate open spaces, as opposed to having sensors in each space, the way this one was designed is it would have sensors or mechanisms to detect traffic going in and leaving. And there were questions raised about the accuracy of that. There’s some testing, which actually did pretty well, but there were other technical problems that arose over time. And ultimately, it was dismantled in 20, last year, as part of other construction. So that’s one initiative where there were a number of issues really throughout and ultimately it was dismantled.

Tom Temin: And they tried bicycles to be available for people to get from point A to point B within the campus.

Robert Storch: They did, and in fact they do. That’s one that actually is still operating of the initiatives that we examined. That is operating, but as a result of that, we looked at the effectiveness and had a number of concerns. And we looked at the cost that was being spent on these bicycles. And the idea is people can use these to go from building to building, and we found that the cost of the bicycles went up by almost three quarters by 74% from 2016 when it’s started to 2019. And the agency continue to buy bikes, even though as when you looked at the number of new users, the cost per user went up from $608 per user to over $1000 to $1,019. So the costs were going up significantly. We actually went out and our folks visited the racks over a period of a week to see how much traffic these bikes got, how much they were being used. And we found that 17% of them didn’t move at all, and 14% move less than three times, so almost a third of them moving less than three times in total. Additionally, we found that most of the movement that did occur was during the sort of rush hour periods at the beginning and the end of the day, which suggested to us that the bikes being used more to address the issue we talked about at the outset about some of the distances that folks have to walk in from parking, as opposed to being used for the intended purpose of going from building to building. One additional thing we found, which we thought was interesting was that there have been a total of 140 of these bikes bought in this program. And of those 50 of those were in storage. And we inquired about that, and they were in storage, because they have tires that go flat, more recent bikes have been bought with no flat tires. And the agency told us that it may move these bikes out to the field. But as we say in the report, it really was unclear to us why they had been put in storage as opposed to simply buying no flat tires, or just re-inflating the tires.

Tom Temin: Yeah, golly, the things you don’t think about. But overall, this report mentions in several occasions, that the morale and that this is something that affects employee morale, and it’s extremely frustrating for employees, and as you mentioned, has been for 60 years, they’ve been complaining about it. So that gets to the issue of the equity of who can park where, and there are reserved spaces may be in abundance, Did you find?

Robert Storch: In the report that released we don’t go through and identify the numbers there. But we do identify that there were concerns expressed by people regarding access to spaces. And one of the things that we recommended to the agency was that it do a study and in fact, include in that a workforce survey, so that it can help to address those issues and identify strategies that helps to ameliorate those concerns in the future.

Tom Temin: So other than the director, maybe nobody should have a reserve space.

Robert Storch: Well, I wouldn’t say that. And again, that’s not something we get into in the report regarding who exactly has access to what spaces. But one of the concerns that is expressed is whether there’s abuse of reserved spaces. So whatever the purpose is, whether they’re for leadership, whether they’re for medical, what they’re for is whether those spaces are being used properly or not. And that’s something that we suggest the agency look into.

Tom Temin: And your main recommendation is this has got to rise in terms of management’s concern and having an organized approach to it. Correct?

Robert Storch: Absolutely. One of the things that we say on number occasions in the report is that we found that the agency had not sufficiently prioritized parking and transportation, at one point calling a nice to have, things like that at least one of the individuals that we spoke with. And this is something that really matters to people, right, and not just here, I think across the federal workforce. And so one of the things we found was that they’re not sufficiently prioritize this. And as I mentioned, the sources that we examined, supported that. So that’s why we thought it was really important in our recommendation that the agency develop comprehensive strategies that include the workforce survey to gather information so that it’s able to take that into account.

Tom Temin: And by the way, are you able to park reasonably close to your office on a normal day?

Robert Storch: Yes, Tom, fortunately, I am. But as our report found, there are significant concerns among the workforce and that many people do not have convenient parking, and hopefully our report will help the agency to address that.

Tom Temin: Robert Storch is inspector general of the National Security Agency. Thanks so much.

Robert Storch: Always a pleasure, Tom, thank you for your interest.