DHSDHS St. Elizabeths project hobbled by delays, cost overruns

Published 25 March 2014

In 2006 the federal government decided to renovate St. Elizabeths Hospital and turn it into the new DHS headquarters. Officials estimated that DHS employees would begin occupying the campus by 2015. Today, the project is at least $1 billion over budget, and it will require at least $3.2 billion to complete the renovation of the 159-year-old mental hospital complex by 2026.

In 2006 the federal government decided to renovate St. Elizabeths Hospital and turn it into the new DHS headquarters. Officials estimated that DHS employees would begin occupying the campus by 2015. Today, the project is at least $1 billion over budget, and it will require at least $3.2 billion to complete the renovation of the 159-year-old mental hospital complex by 2026.

The Washington Times reports that some lawmakers are now questioning whether the project should be abandoned. “Frankly, I just fail to see how this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars — to spend this kind of money for a headquarters — and I’m just really disappointed in the way it’s played out,” Representative Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina) said during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing last month.

For years, Washington, D.C. officials tried to attract private firms to renovate the west campus of St. Elizabeths, which sits on 176 acres overlooking the Anacostia River, but businesses found renovations to be too costly. The federal government then pledged to occupy the campus and restore its facilities, even adopting a green initiative — employing features like rain water toilets and sustainable building practices — in hopes that the campus would receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for green buildings. Washington, D.C. officials also committed to invest tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements for residential and commercial developments on the east campus, which the city controlled.

The project was promoted as the largest construction project in the Washington, D.C. area since the Pentagon was completed in 1943.

Today, the project St. Elizabeths plan is surrounded by skepticism. “We ought to stop and try to re-evaluate this before we spend another dime,” said Representative Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight and management efficiency. “As government, we can’t just keep spending money we don’t have and borrowing money we don’t have, and can’t ever repay, to continue projects like this.”

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson supports the project as a way to provide DHS employees a headquarters for operating efficiently and boosting morale. Dan Cruz, spokesman for the General Services Administration (GSA), which is sharing renovation costs with DHS, notes that the proposed headquarters will cut DHS spending on leased space.

DHS comprises 240,000 employees in twenty-two agencies operating from about fifty office locations throughout the Washington, D.C. area.

Only the U.S. Coast Guard, now part of DHS, is currently operating out of St. Elizabeths.

“There’s a lot of management issues at DHS, and they think they’ve found the magic bullet by putting everyone under one roof,” said Leslie Paige, vice president at Citizens Against Government Waste. “A new building isn’t part of their mission. They’ve got a lot of problems, a lot of other things that really require resources that are essential to keeping the homeland safe. Are we going to deprive these needs so we can build a new building, in the hopes of raising morale?”

Duncan has requested DHS and GSA to submit to Congress a cost-cutting plan for the project. ”Could DHS not put together a task-force of folks to re-evaluate this and see where they might find cost savings?” Duncan said. “I think Congress would be more willing to work with DHS if they were willing to do that.”

President Barack Obama, a supporter of the project, is allocating $73 million to DHS for consolidation efforts, and GSA will receive $251 for the project, according to Obama’s proposed 2015 budget.

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