On the way to BRAC savings, a legion of cost overruns

Walter Pincus
Reporter July 4, 2012

A proposal to grant the Obama administration the authority to start two new rounds of military Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) was dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, and the Government Accountability Office probably hammered the last nail in the coffin Friday.

I’m not going to focus on all the federal and state horse-trading that precedes a final base closing list or which unit goes where. Instead, let’s look at what happens once the Defense Department takes over.

Brace yourself: This is another story of uncontrolled Pentagon spending with almost no public attention.

In its latest review of the 2005 BRAC program — the largest and most complex — the GAO found that the estimated cost of $21 billion to implement the program had grown to $35 billion by Sept. 30, 2011.

That 67 percent bump “was largely due to increased construction costs” linked primarily to just 14 of the 180 projects approved in 2005, the GAO said.

But the report’s stun factor isn’t limited to the missteps in planning and calculations. It seems that no one in these cases stepped back to try a less costly path.

Take the consolidation of various National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) locations at a new campus at Fort Belvoir, Va.

A project that had been projected to cost $1.1 billion grew to a price tag of $2.6 billion. About $726 million of the increase happened because the NGA did not foresee that it would need essential support facilities, including a new technology center and data-storage warehouse of 200,000 square feet. Also not included in initial estimates for the NGA Campus East were “costs for information technology equipment and software, internal communication cabling, and furnishings to outfit the new buildings,” according to the GAO.

A misjudgment about space was also involved in a $1.1 billion increase associated with closing Fort Monmouth, N.J., and moving its functions to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade, both in Maryland, and to Fort Belvoir.

The biggest increase came when the Army realized, after changes had begun, that it needed an additional 750,000 square feet of construction for the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) Center of Excellence at Aberdeen.

Another element moved from Fort Monmouth was the Military Academy Preparatory School. Since before World War I, the school has been a vehicle for enlisted Army personnel to get a quick year’s education, primarily in math and English, so they can qualify for admission to West Point. In 1965, it opened to civilians “who had proven themselves as leaders and athletes,” giving them “another avenue to enter West Point,” according to the school’s Web site.

At Fort Monmouth, the academy was housed in a 45-year-old Signal Corps School complex. Now it is moving into a facility that an Army publication described in 2011 as “a typical large Military Construction project” with barracks and a gymnasium, along “with three NCAA sports fields [and] an academic building with a dining facility that serves 300.”

According to the GAO, the project has “experienced about a $127 million or 449 percent increase over initial [BRAC] commission estimates.”

One of my favorite examples is about $347 million added to the cost of realigning supply and storage facilities around the country, in part because one 20,000-square-foot request turned out to be a typo: 200,000 square feet was actually needed, requiring additional construction, according to the GAO. That was at Georgia’s Warner Robins Strategic Distribution Platform.

Even small BRAC projects experienced giant cost growth.

“Local commanders saw an opportunity to upgrade their facilities,” remarked a retired general.

At Fort Jackson, S.C., for example, the price tag for two projects grew by more than 1,000 percent. One of them, the Single Drill Sergeant School, was supposed to cost $1.8 million. But when the Army determined that its 40-year-old facilities needed new classrooms, headquarters offices and a dining area for 250 additional students, the project’s cost grew to $27.2 million, the GAO reports.

The military didn’t initiate all the increases. The GAO attributed much of the $1.7 billion rise in the cost of moving the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the National Naval Medical Center to a congressionally mandated study that found that Walter Reed and a new military hospital at Fort Belvoir “should be ‘world-class’ medical facilities.” Given the need for better care of the wounded and ill from Iraq and Afghanistan, no one could deny that spending.

Should all this mean no more BRAC? Of course not. Despite the billions in cost increases, the 2005 BRAC — with roughly 180 closed or realigned bases or programs — is resulting in an average savings of nearly $4 billion a year, according to the GAO.

Just keep closer tabs when the next round is approved.

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