GAO: Costs to implement BRAC have risen significantly

Auditors estimate the long-term savings will be about 70 percent lower than projected in 2005.

An audit of the Defense Department's plans to close and restructure military properties as required by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission shows that implementation costs have risen 67 percent from $21 billion to $35 billion.

Auditors from the Government Accountability Office also found that the estimated long-term savings associated with the changes through 2025 have fallen to $10.9 billion, a 70 percent drop from the BRAC commission's original savings estimate of $36 billion.

The 2005 BRAC was the fifth round of base closures by the Defense Department since 1988 and involves hundreds of actions at 800 separate locations, as well as the relocation of more than 123,000 federal workers and military personnel. The department is required by law to implement all of the recommendations by Sept. 15, 2011.

"It is the biggest, most complex and costliest BRAC round ever," wrote Brian J. Lepore, GAO's director of defense capabilities and management in a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. Congress directed GAO to conduct the audit.

Lepore noted that auditors believe the savings estimates continue to be overstated because they are based on savings from eliminating military personnel positions without corresponding decreases in end-strength, but Defense officials maintain the projections are valid.

In a written response to GAO's findings, Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and management, said the audit accurately characterized the cost growth associated with BRAC implementation.

"Even though the BRAC 2005 round is costing more and savings are less than originally estimated in 2005, implementation of these recommendations is an important element of the department's ongoing effort to reshape our infrastructure to respond to global challenges," Robyn wrote.

The most significant cost increases are associated with the realignment of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which involves closing the existing Washington facility after expanding the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and building a community hospital and dental clinic at Fort Belvoir, Va. Costs associated with those actions rose $779 million between 2009 and 2010 -- a 48 percent increase over estimates.

Defense officials attributed the increase to higher construction costs and higher than anticipated expenses for moving and purchasing equipment.

There are other concerns about the Walter Reed realignment besides cost growth. A report by the Defense Health Board in May questioned whether the expanded Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which is to be renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, will in fact be a "world class medical facility" as required by law.

"The BRAC funding process entails a number of constraints and limitations that do not support the creation of a comprehensive plan and construction strategy, particularly for renovation of existing facilities. These limitations have been, and continue to be, a major impediment to designing the new [Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] to be a world class medical facility," the report said.

The board found a number of areas in which plans for the new facility did not conform to prevailing standards, particularly regarding the design of surgical suites, laboratory capacity and the center's overall bed plan. In addition, board members could not find a strategic technology master plan for using advanced diagnostic and treatment technologies.

The board recommended, among other things, that a single official be put in charge, that planning be guided by an accepted definition of "world-class medical facility," and that deficiencies in current plans be corrected and adequately funded.