FBI headquarters project in danger of repeating past failures?

Few members of Congress deny the FBI needs a new headquarters. But lawmakers haven’t forgotten about past botched federal building projects, and they’re worried history may repeat itself.

To ensure success, the General Services Administration must find a good deal with a building developer, meet the FBI’s financial and security requirements and ensure a fair decision-making process as it chooses one of three proposed sites for the new headquarters, members of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee said.

“It’s important that we get it right,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee, at a hearing March 1. “Large projects have a history of running over costs and sometimes running out of money halfway through. We need to be careful that a project as important and as big as this doesn’t follow past history.”

With that in mind, Congress’ biggest concern is funding for the FBI headquarters, as current plans lack the clear details many lawmakers would like.

As planned, GSA and the FBI would pay  for the headquarters project from two different sources: appropriations and the exchange of its current headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in downtown Washington. President Barack Obama requested $1.4 billion in his 2017 budget proposal for the project, which the FBI and GSA would split. The agencies secured an additional $390 million for the project under the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill.

Members on both the House Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure committees said GSA has shifted its stance slightly on how it plans to fund the FBI headquarters project.

Congress was under the impression that GSA planned to use the proceeds from selling the current FBI building to fund the bulk of the consolidation project, and that it ultimately had little authority to get involved since it asked for a small amount in appropriated funding.

GSA received most of the $390 million Congress appropriated in 2016, which it will use for planning and designing the new building, said Norman Dong, GSA’s Public Building Service Commissioner.

But some members of the House Appropriations Committee say the President’s request for $1.4 billion indicates that the value of the current FBI building might be less than GSA first thought.

“We are facing the exact problem that Chairman [Ander] Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and I mentioned last year — the expectation that the Appropriations Committee is going to clean up the mess when the exchange authority doesn’t raise the funds that are necessary for this project,” House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Ranking Member Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said during a Feb. 29 hearing on GSA’s budget. “The building hasn’t even been sold yet, and this request already tells us that whatever the proceeds are, it won’t be nearly enough.”

Lawmakers on both committees pressed GSA leaders on the value of the current FBI building.

“Ultimately, that’s for the market to decide, and we will have a far better sense when the bidders submit their proposals at the end of June,” Dong said.

Dong said the Hoover building has been appraised, but he wouldn’t divulge the exact value in a public setting before Congress because GSA was in the middle of the procurement process.

GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth said her agency has a better sense this year of what the consolidation project would cost, compared to the previous year’s estimates. She also wouldn’t reveal the appraised value of the current FBI building.

“We’ve been avoiding talking about specific costs related to both the value of Hoover, as well as the project overall, primarily because we’re in an active procurement process,” she said Feb. 29.

The exact cost savings by moving all 13 sites in the national capital area under one roof are difficult to quantify, said Richard Haley, chief financial officer and assistant director of the facilities and logistics services division at the FBI. Though the savings will be “considerable,” GSA hasn’t updated its estimate since 2011, Haley said.

GSA spends roughly $130 million on leases and utilities for the 13 sites in the national capital area today, he said.

Implications for FBI security

The FBI headquarters project is “one of the most important homeland security initiatives in years,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who testified before the subcommittee and pushed for the building to begin in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, where two of three proposed sites are located.

The role of the FBI has evolved drastically since Sept. 11, Haley said. The agency has more than 6,000 state and local task force members and more IT and intelligence specialists than ever before.

“If a building is at its best, it’s invisible to that operational user,” Haley said. “Unfortunately, especially at headquarters, our building is not invisible to the users and to the agents. And intel analysts and professional staff have a lot of problems in terms of just being able to just get collaboration area. It was a police precinct when it was built. … That same efficiency when it was built back in the 1960s and 1970s is today inhibiting where we can actually make the appropriate space, run wiring and cabling throughout the building. Projects take way too long.”

Haley described the FBI as a “national and global coordination center” for the various investigations that take place in the field. Having a variety of different skill-sets and capabilities under one roof will allow the agency to better respond to the ever-changing nature of cyber breaches and other attacks, he said.

The lack of central headquarters is one of the biggest challenges for FBI Director James Comey, who told House appropriators that the current building has severe security deficiencies.

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