VA Project Tangled in Budget Struggle

Courtesy photo The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to build a clinic and columbarium on the site of the former Naval Air Station runways at Alameda Point. Congressional backlash over how the VA is managing construction projects elsewhere in the country could jeopardize these plans.

Pres. Barack Obama’s 2016 budget proposal includes $70 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic and columbarium at Alameda Point. If approved by Congress, the money would go toward site work, utilities, geotechnical work, and wetlands mitigation. But the VA is facing a backlash in Congress over an astronomical cost overrun of nearly $1 billion at its new hospital facility being built in Aurora, Colo., near Denver. Whether this will affect Alameda Point is yet to be seen.

The House of Representatives cut the president’s VA construction budget in half. The Senate has refused to go along with the cut. The president has threatened to veto the bill if the VA cuts come to his desk.

Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee delivered scathing remarks during a House hearing on the bill in April. "How many doctors and nurses could have been hired with $1 billion that the VA’s Office of Construction & Facilities Management has set fire to?" said Roe. He went on to name three other VA projects that are wildly over budget in Orlando, New Orleans and Las Vegas. "If this is the performance we should expect, the VA really has no business being in the construction industry."

One thing the House and Senate agree on is that future construction projects costing over $250 million, including the one in Colorado, will be turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction oversight. The initial cost projection for the Alameda Point project is $210 million and, thus, will remain under the VA’s construction oversight, unless the VA voluntarily turns it over to the Corps of Engineers.

During the April hearing on the bill, Congresswoman Barbara Lee pleaded with the committee not to cut construction funding. "Simply put, the level of funds allocated in this bill is totally insufficient," said Lee, a member of the Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. "As a result, the construction of vital medical facilities that will serve our veterans will be delayed. This includes the initial phase of construction for the state-of-the-art Alameda Point outpatient clinic in my own congressional district, which serves thousands of veterans in northern California."

When the Senate Appropriations Committee looked at the bill on May 21, they, too, were adamant about placing large projects into the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers. "With this (Aurora, Colo.,) project the Department has breached the trust of the Committee, Congress and the taxpayer with its embarrassing mishandling of public funds," stated the Senate Appropriations Committee report in May.

The Senate committee stopped short of major cuts to the VA’s construction budget, keeping it essentially at the level requested by the president. The committee cut only $116 million from the president’s $1.14 billion VA major construction budget request. The House cut $582 million. If the cuts to the VA budget do occur, it will not halt the Alameda Point project. It will be up to the secretary of the VA as to how to apportion the cuts.

The Alameda Point project received its first funding in fiscal year 2011 in the amount of $17 million for design work. However, the project stalled when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the VA that the 1,875-foot buffer between its buildings and the nesting area for the endangered California least terns was not large enough.

The VA had already removed a proposed 250,000-square-foot hospital and a helipad from its original 2008 plans because of concerns about the least terns. Fish and Wildlife was still not satisfied and wanted the clinic further away. In 2013, the city decided to forego receiving 70 acres of land on the city’s Northwest Territories from the Navy in order to provide space for the VA clinic and part of the columbarium.

As part of the deal with the city, the VA will construct a new street entrance to Alameda Point and utility infrastructure out to the site that the city will also be able to use. The VA will continue its roadway past the clinic and out to the Bay’s western shoreline, ending at a parking lot, viewpoint and Bay Trail access point.

The services that the VA will provide at the new clinic include primary care, mental health and substance abuse care, urgent care, medical and surgical sub-specialties, women’s health, laboratory, pharmacy, radiology, physical therapy, optometry and ambulatory surgery.

Richard Bangert writes the online Alameda Point Environmental Report. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Alameda
PtEnviro.