A study by the Congressional Budget Office has confirmed two key points that the Reagan administration's appointees at the General Services Administration have been trying to make about the federal construction process: that the system of getting congressional approval for projects is cumbersome and that construction is more economical than leasing.
The report was written as a guide for legislators trying to "improve program accountability and cost disclosure" at GSA, according to CBO Director Alice M. Rivlin. Although GSA officials contend that the CBO made more than its share of errors in facts and figures, GSA policy makers generally were happy that the two conclusions supported the direction of the administration's policies.
"In the short term, construction is obviously a costly way to acquire space," the report states, adding, "Indeed, construction costs are higher to the federal government than to private-sector developers because of regulations and mandates that attend the expenditures of federal monies." The report says CBO staff analysts concluded that the decision-making procedures "do indeed favor leasing."
However, the study concludes that, "In the longer term . . . for the government to build and own its facilities often offers opportunities for significant economies." GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase shares that view and has been trying to map plans that slowly will pull federal workers out of leased space wherever possible and move them into government-owned offices.
On the other point, GSA has griped about the House's lack of speed in approving prospectuses for both construction and repair projects. Often costs and the need for projects changed before Congress finished a review that made no substantive changes, Haase said. The Senate reviews projects annually rather than on a case-by-case basis.
But complicating a clear reading of the CBO report was the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that tossed out the legislative-veto provisions written into hundreds of laws. GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen now has agency lawyers researching whether the judicial action has given the agency what the CBO recommended: only an annual, and not a piece-meal, review.
Besieged by complaints about the problem of asbestos in federally owned and commercially leased buildings, GSA has decided to try to solve at least half of the problem by adding a new clause to government leases.
"We are going to require building owners to take full responsibility for asbestos that turns up," said Commissioner Haase.
The provision says "offerers shall represent as part of their offers whether the building in which space is proposed contains friable asbestos." Buildings that have asbestos will be evaluated, and the owners may be required to remove, encapsulate, enclose or otherwise manage the asbestos or, GSA says, it may cancel the lease.
Anyone who has driven in western Virginia has seen the warning signs that say "falling rocks" when the road sidles up to a crumbling mountain wall. For most of the last decade, such signs would have been appropriate along the level, two-mile-long stretch of Va. Route 110--far from any hill or mountain--that runs from Rosslyn to the Twin Bridges Marriott along the Potomac.
The signs are needed because the underside of a 165-foot pedestrian bridge that runs over Route 110 from a parking lot to the Pentagon is crumbling. The problem has become so bad that GSA strung metal netting underneath to catch falling chunks.
Now, after six years of dickering, GSA finally has landed a contractor, Westland Construction Co. of Chantilly, that is willing to reconstruct the bridge--for $646,450.
The case is interesting because it has been a cornerstone of arguments raised by GSA whistleblower Bertrand G. Berube over the deterioration of the "whole federal infrastructure." Berube, who has been bounced around to two lower-ranking jobs after initially being promoted by Carmen, drew strong comments from GSA staff over his complaints about the bridge.
An internal GSA memorandum states that Berube is "irresponsible with his facts and has misrepresented the bridge's history." GSA officials contend that it wasn't until Carmen took over that anyone did anything about the bridge and that Berube, a structural engineer in his earlier days at GSA, "knew or should have known that the safety of the 1942-vintage bridge was challenged as far back as 1977--if not earlier."
"What they're trying to do is get embroiled in an argument of who is or who is not responsible for fixing it," Berube retorted. "This is just an example of what is being duplicated in buildings across the country a thousand times. The fact that they come up and fix each of the problems that I find right after I point them out does not address the overall problem."