Base-move costs climb

Escalation put at 50% in GAO report, with likely savings down

December 12, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Matthew Hay Brown | Timothy B. Wheeler and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

The cost of the Pentagon's sweeping nationwide shake-up of military bases, including Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade, has soared nearly 50 percent overall in the past two years, while savings from consolidating defense operations might have been overestimated, says a new report to Congress.

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, says the Defense Department's cost estimates for its largest base shuffle ever have climbed from $21 billion to $31 billion since the plan was unveiled in 2005. Projected savings have slipped by 5 percent, to about $4 billion a year.

The report, released on the eve of a congressional hearing reviewing the base moves, is likely to be welcomed by New Jersey officials fighting an uphill battle to block the closure of Fort Monmouth and the transfer of its high-tech defense work to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Civilian employees at Monmouth and their elected representatives contend that the 90-year-old Army post on the Jersey Shore ought to be spared because the costs of closing it were badly underestimated, and the refusal of many workers to relocate to Maryland could disrupt the sensitive electronic warfare research going on there.

The Pentagon now estimates that closing Monmouth and moving its 5,200-member work force to Aberdeen will cost $1.45 billion, almost twice what it originally projected, the report notes.

The GAO says that increases in the cost of building new workspace for the 123,000 personnel being relocated nationwide accounts for most of the jump in estimated expenses of the 2005 base realignment and closure effort, commonly referred to by its acronym, BRAC.

Part of the $680 million increase in estimated costs for closing Monmouth, the report points out, stems from the Army's realization that it had been mistaken in its belief that existing facilities at Aberdeen Proving Ground could accommodate all the electronic warfare and sensors work now being performed at the New Jersey post.

The Army also found that Aberdeen needed more upgrades to its utilities, roads and information technology than originally planned, the report says.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the findings do not change the case for expanding Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"While the numbers do vary from initial estimates, at the end of the day we are still saving billions of taxpayer dollars through the BRAC process," Cummings said.

At the request of the New Jersey congressional delegation, the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hear testimony today on BRAC's progress.

"This illustrates what we in Congress worried about from the beginning: that the process was flawed and would not achieve the savings DoD boasted it would," said Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee.

By the Pentagon's latest estimates, the Monmouth closure and move to Aberdeen ranks as the fourth-costliest of all 182 base moves approved in 2005. But the Monmouth shuttering also ranks eighth-highest in expected cost savings, now estimated to be $154 million a year, according to the report.

The second-costliest expansion is at another Maryland installation, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. It is slated to expand significantly with the closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Moving Walter Reed's medical services to Bethesda and to Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia is expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion, a 71 percent increase, the GAO says.

Phil Alperson, BRAC coordinator for Montgomery County, said he was not surprised by the cost escalation for the expansion of the Bethesda naval hospital. The Bush administration already has asked for additional funds to accelerate construction, he said.

"This is not a typical cost overrun," he said. Military officials have explained that upgrading treatment of wounded war-fighters and military retirees is part of the war effort, he said.

The Pentagon's cost estimates for moving the Defense Information Systems Agency from Northern Virginia to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County also has soared by 160 percent, to $572.8 million, the GAO report notes.

Pentagon officials have said that saving on costs was just one of the reasons - and not necessarily the main one - for this, the fifth round of base closings and expansions ordered since the late 1980s.

"This one was more about the transformation of the military, supporting the war-fighter for present and future engagements to protect our national security," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat whose district includes Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Philip W. Grone, deputy undersecretary of defense, wrote in response to the GAO's report that even though the base moves are costing more and saving less than originally estimated two years ago, officials still believe the shake-up is warranted as the Pentagon seeks to reshape the military.

Construction costs have gone up, Grone added, in part because Pentagon officials have decided to construct buildings rather than renovate existing ones at some installations.

But another factor behind the big jump in estimated costs is that the Pentagon did not factor inflation into its original figures, the GAO says. When adjusted for inflation, estimated costs have increased about 36 percent, to $28.6 billion. And when inflation is accounted for, projected annual savings also have shrunk by 20 percent to about $3.4 billion.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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