Federal Courthouses:

Most Recommended New Construction Projects Do Not Qualify Under Improved Capital-Planning Process

GAO-13-523T: Published: Apr 17, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 2013.

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Mark L. Goldstein
(202) 512-2834
goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The AMP process, which the judiciary has applied to about 67 percent of its courthouses, represents progress by the judiciary in aligning its capital-planning process with leading capital-planning practices, but the document the judiciary uses to request courthouse construction projects from Congress lacks transparency and key information. For example, the AMP process better aligns with leading practices for identifying real property needs by establishing a comprehensive, nationwide 328-factor analysis of every courthouse, whereas the previous process only assessed courthouses when requested by a local judicial district. However, the AMP process does not fully align with several leading practices due to, for example, its lack of linkage to the judiciary's strategic plan. Two courthouse projects illustrate how the AMP process has changed the way the judiciary evaluates its need for new courthouses. Specifically, two projects listed on a previous 5-year plan (covering fiscal years 2012 through 2016) were re-evaluated under AMP--San Jose, California, and Greenbelt, Maryland. Both had ranked among the top 15 most urgent projects nationwide under the previous capital-planning process, and as such, the judiciary prioritized them for new construction in 2010. However, after the judiciary evaluated the San Jose and Greenbelt projects under the AMP process, their nationwide rankings fell to 117 and 139, respectively. Judiciary officials explained that this drop was largely because of the completion of additional AMP assessments, coupled with reduced space needs in both locations because of courtroom-sharing. Following the change in rankings, GSA and the judiciary determined that repair and alteration projects that reconfigure existing space in these two locations could alternatively address the judiciary's needs. The judiciary added that its decision saved taxpayers money. As a result, at the request of the judiciary, the Judicial Conference of the United States removed the two projects from the 5-year plan.

However, the judiciary's current 5-year plan--the end product of its capital-planning process--does not align with leading practices for a long-term capital plan in several ways and, as a result, lacks transparency and key funding information. Specifically, judiciary's one-page 5-year plan does not provide a summary of why each project is more urgent than others, information on complete cost estimates, and alternatives to new construction the judiciary considered. Although the 5-year plan lists about $1.1 billion in estimated costs, which are the funds described as needed for that specific 5-year period, these costs only include part of the project phases. The estimated cost of all project phases--site acquisition, building design, and construction--comes to $1.6 billion in 2013 dollars.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses the federal judiciary's (judiciary) capital-planning efforts for new courthouses. Since the early 1990's, the judiciary and the General Services Administration (GSA) have undertaken a multibillion-dollar federal courthouse construction program. To date this program has resulted in 78 new courthouses or annexes and 16 projects that are currently in various stages of development. However, rising costs and other budget priorities have slowed the construction program. In addition, we previously found that recent federal courthouses had been constructed larger than necessary because of poor planning, oversight, and inefficient courtroom use. In 2008, the judiciary began using a new capital-planning process, called the Asset Management Planning (AMP) process, to assess, identify, and rank its space needs. Judiciary officials said that the AMP process addresses concerns about growing costs and incorporates best practices related to capital planning.

GAO is releasing a report that addresses the (1) the extent to which the judiciary's capital-planning process aligns with leading practices and provides information needed for informed decision making related to new courthouses and (2) the extent to which courthouse projects recommended for funding in fiscal years 2014 to 2018 were assessed under the judiciary's AMP process. This statement highlights the key findings and recommendations of this report. GAO's review focused on courthouse projects on the judiciary's current 5-year plan for fiscal years 2014 to 2018.

For more information contact Mark L. Goldstein at (202) 512-2834 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

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