oversight

L.A. Courthouse: Initial Project Justification Is Outdated and Flawed

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-08-17.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                             United States Government Accountability Office

GAO                          Testimony
                             Before the Subcommittee on Economic
                             Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency
                             Management, Committee on Transportation and
                             Infrastructure, House of Representatives

                             L.A. COURTHOUSE
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10:00 a.m. PDT
Friday, August 17, 2012



                             Initial Project Justification
                             Is Outdated and Flawed
                             Statement of Mark L. Goldstein, Director
                             Physical Infrastructure Issues




GAO-12-968T
                                               August 17, 2012

                                               L.A. COURTHOUSE
                                               Initial Project Justification Is Outdated and Flawed

Highlights of GAO-12-968T, a testimony
before the Subcommittee on Economic
Development, Public Buildings, and
Emergency Management, Committee on
Transportation and Infrastructure, House of
Representatives

Why GAO Did This Study                         What GAO Found
The federal judiciary and the GSA are          Because of delays and cost increases, the General Services Administration
in the midst of a multibillion-dollar          (GSA) canceled the authorized 41-courtroom Los Angeles (L.A.), California,
courthouse construction initiative. In         courthouse project in 2006. Since then, GSA and the judiciary have been slow to
2010, GAO found that more than a               agree upon how to proceed with the project, for which about $366 million in
quarter of the new courthouse space            appropriated funds remains available. In 2012, with the judiciary’s support, GSA
was unneeded, costing $835 million to          issued a request for proposal for contractors to design and build a 24-courtoom,
construct and $51 million annually to          32-chamber courthouse, which would be used in conjunction with 25 existing
rent, operate, and maintain.                   courtrooms in the Roybal Courthouse. However, this new plan will not address
As part of this initiative, construction       one of the principal justifications for the original project—that the L.A. Court be
has not yet begun on the L.A.                  centralized at one site. Instead, it would increase the distance between the
courthouse project that was proposed           Roybal Courthouse and the planned second court location and the distance to
to address perceived space,                    the federal detention center from which prisoners must be transported.
operational, and security deficits in Los
Angeles, California. Specifically, the         Each of the challenges leading to extra space—and the associated extra costs—
L.A. Court is split between two different      in courthouses that GAO identified in 2010 apply to the L.A. courthouse project.
buildings—the Roybal and Spring                First, the initial design of the L.A. courthouse project exceeded the
Street Courthouses—causing security            congressionally authorized size by 13 courtrooms and over 260,000 square feet.
and operational problems. Congress             Second, 16 fewer judges are located in Los Angeles than were originally
has appropriated about $400 million for        projected, a change that calls into question the space assumptions that the
the L.A. courthouse project. For this          original proposals were based on. Third, officials did not fully take into
testimony, GAO was asked to review             consideration the advantages of courtroom sharing, again planning more
the L.A. Courthouse project and (1)            courtrooms than necessary. According to the courtroom sharing model that GAO
explain its history and status, (2)            developed for a 2010 report using the judiciary’s courtroom usage data, the 45
determine the extent to which                  current district judges in Los Angeles would need 25 courtrooms to adequately
previously identified challenges related       address all scheduled courtroom time—roughly half of the 49 courtrooms
to courthouse construction apply to the        currently planned.
project, and (3) determine if the
analysis that made it the highest              It is not clear if the L.A. project remains a high priority. The judiciary chose not to
priority construction project still applies.   reassess the L.A. project under a new prioritization process it began
                                               implementing in 2009. The process was changed to address concerns about the
This testimony is based primarily on
                                               growing cost of courthouse projects and incorporate industry standards and best
GAO’s prior work on federal
courthouses, for which GAO analyzed
                                               practices. However, there is evidence that the L.A. project justification from the
courthouse planning and use data,              old process is outdated and flawed based on the amount of space needed and
visited key sites in Los Angeles and           the security assessment. Two high-priority projects that were reassessed under
other locations, modeled courtroom-            the new system were subsequently removed from the list. GAO is currently
sharing scenarios, and interviewed             studying the judiciary’s new prioritization process as it relates to projects
judges and GSA officials. This                 currently on the judiciary’s 5-year plan for this subcommittee and will continue to
information was updated through GSA            review these issues as part of that work.
and judiciary documents and
interviews. GSA and judiciary provided
technical comments on GAO’s updated
work.




View GAO-12-968T. For more information,
contact Mark L. Goldstein at (202) 512-2834
or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

                                                                                          United States Government Accountability Office
Chairman Denham, Ranking Member Norton, and Members of the
Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here to discuss our recent work on federal courthouse
construction issues and on the Los Angeles (L.A.) courthouse in
particular. Since the early 1990s, the General Services Administration
(GSA) and the federal judiciary (judiciary) have undertaken a multibillion-
dollar courthouse construction initiative. According to GSA, that initiative
has resulted in 76 new courthouses or annexes, and 18 additional
courthouses in various stages of development. However, in 2010, we
reported that more than a quarter of new courthouse space—then costing
$835 million to construct and $51 million annually to operate—was
unneeded. 1 We found the new extra courthouse space was the result of
poor oversight and planning. Meanwhile, construction has not yet begun
on the L.A. courthouse project, ranked by the judiciary as its top priority
for construction since fiscal year 2000.

For this testimony, we were asked to (1) explain the history and current
status of the L.A. courthouse project, (2) determine the extent to which
previously identified planning issues related to overall courthouse
construction specifically apply to the L.A. courthouse, and (3) determine
whether the analysis that made the L.A. courthouse the judiciary’s highest
priority courthouse construction project still applies. This testimony is
based primarily on our prior work on federal courthouses, 2 for which we
analyzed courthouse planning and data; reviewed relevant laws,
regulations, and project planning and budget documents; visited
courthouse sites in Los Angeles and other locations; analyzed selected
courthouses as case studies; modeled courtroom-sharing scenarios;
contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel of


1
 GAO, Federal Courthouse Construction: Better Planning, Oversight, and Courtroom
Sharing Needed to Address Future Costs, GAO-10-417 (Washington, D.C.:
June 21, 2010).
2
 See GAO, Federal Courthouse Construction: Nationwide Space and Cost Issues Are
Applicable to L.A. Courthouse Project, GAO-12-206T (Washington, D.C.: November 4,
2011); GAO, Federal Courthouse Construction: Better Planning, Oversight, and
Courtroom Sharing Needed to Address Future Costs, GAO-10-417 (Washington, D.C.:
June 21, 2010); GAO, Federal Courthouse Construction: Estimated Costs to House the
L.A. District Court Have Tripled and There Is No Consensus on How to Proceed,
GAO-08-889 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 12, 2008); GAO, Federal Courthouses: Rent
Increases Due to New Space and Growing Energy and Security Costs Require Better
Tracking and Management, GAO-06-613 (Washington, D.C.: June 20, 2006).




Page 1                                                                   GAO-12-968T
             judicial experts; conducted structured interviews with district and
             magistrate judges about the challenges and opportunities related to
             courtroom sharing; analyzed nationwide judiciary rent data generated
             from GSA’s billing system; and interviewed judges, GSA officials, and
             other relevant stakeholders. Information was updated though GSA and
             judiciary documents and interviews. To determine whether the judiciary’s
             prioritization of the L.A. courthouse project still applies, we reviewed
             judiciary planning documents and interviewed judiciary officials. Our prior
             work was conducted from June 2004 through June 2010, and our
             additional work was conducted during July and August 2012. GSA and
             judiciary provided technical comments to our additional work. All of our
             work was conducted in accordance with generally accepted government
             auditing standards. More detail on our scope and methodology is
             available in the full reports on which this testimony is based.


             The judiciary uses a 5-year plan to define its priorities for courthouse
Background   construction. From fiscal year 1996 through 2008, the judiciary used a
             process to prioritize and score projects for inclusion in this plan based on

             1. caseload and estimated growth in the number of judges and staff,
             2. security concerns, and
             3. any operational inefficiencies that may exist with the current facilities.

             GSA uses the judiciary’s plan to develop construction proposals and cost
             estimates for congressional authorizations and appropriations. 3 In 2009,
             the judiciary began applying a new process for prioritizing courthouse
             projects that will apply to future 5-year plans. Judiciary officials said that
             the new process was developed in part to address concerns about
             growing costs and incorporate industry standards and best practices. The
             judiciary is currently evaluating its 94 federal judicial districts and 11
             courts of appeal under the new process. We are reviewing this new
             process as part of an ongoing engagement for this subcommittee.

             Under the old prioritization process, the judiciary had identified the L.A.
             courthouse project as high-priority for several reasons. The federal court
             in downtown Los Angeles (L.A. Court) is split between two buildings—the


             3
              For purposes of this testimony, we refer to approval of these projects or prospectuses by
             the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the House Committee on
             Transportation and Infrastructure as “congressionally authorized.” See 40 U.S.C. § 3307.




             Page 2                                                                        GAO-12-968T
                                         United States Courthouse on North Spring Street (Spring Street
                                         Courthouse) built in 1938 and the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and
                                         United States Courthouse (Roybal Courthouse) built in 1992. The Spring
                                         Street Courthouse consists of 32 courtrooms—11 of which do not meet
                                         the judiciary’s minimum design standards for size. 4 The Roybal
                                         Courthouse consists of 34 courtrooms (10 district, 6 magistrate, and 18
                                         bankruptcy). (See fig. 1.)

Figure 1: U.S. District Courthouses in Los Angeles




                                         4
                                          The judiciary considers three of the courtrooms in the Spring Street Courthouse to be
                                         hearing rooms and not courtrooms.




                                         Page 3                                                                       GAO-12-968T
In 1996, the judiciary concluded that having the L.A. Court split between
two courthouses created security and operational problems, that the
judiciary needed additional space in downtown Los Angeles, and that the
Spring Street Courthouse had obsolete building systems and poor
security conditions. One of the security challenges created by the split
court is that prisoners must be transported from the Metropolitan
Detention Center along surface streets to the Spring Street Courthouse.
The Roybal Courthouse, however, is connected to the detention center by
a secure tunnel.

In fiscal year 2000, the judiciary requested and GSA proposed building a
new courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. From fiscal year 2001 through
fiscal year 2005, Congress made three appropriations for a new L.A.
courthouse, to remain available until expended.

•   In fiscal year 2001, Congress authorized $35.25 million and later
    provided funding to acquire a site for and design a 41-courtroom,
    1,016,300-square-foot building based on a GSA prospectus. 5
•   In fiscal year 2004, Congress also appropriated $50 million to
    construct a new L.A. courthouse.
•   In fiscal year 2005, Congress appropriated an additional $314.4
    million.
As we reported in 2008, GSA spent $16.3 million designing a new
courthouse for the L.A. Court and $16.9 million acquiring and preparing a
new site for it in downtown Los Angeles, leaving about $366.45 million
available for the construction of a 41-courtroom courthouse.




5
 This authorized funding amount refers to a GSA reported amount in its courthouse
project funding data. The $35.25 million amount reflects the amount approved by the
House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in July 2000 and is less than the
$36.20 million approved by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works also
approved in July 2000.




Page 4                                                                    GAO-12-968T
                      As we first reported in 2008, the L.A. courthouse project remains un-built
L.A. Courthouse       because of delays and cost increases. The project was delayed in part
Project Was           because GSA decided to design a 54-courtroom, 1,279,650-square-foot
                      building based on a request from the judiciary, instead of designing the
Repeatedly Delayed    congressionally authorized 41-courtroom, 1,016,300-square-foot
and Estimated Costs   courthouse. GSA completed the proposal for the 54-courtroom design in
Increased             2003, but the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rejected the
                      proposal and did not include it in the President’s budget request for fiscal
                      year 2005. GSA then designed a 41-courtroom building—the originally
                      authorized size—but by the time that design was completed, the schedule
                      for constructing the building had been delayed by 2 years, according to a
                      senior GSA official involved with the project. With this delay, inflation then
                      pushed the project’s cost over budget, forcing GSA to further reduce the
                      scope of the project in order to construct it within the authorized and
                      appropriated amounts. However, the cycle continued as GSA and L.A.
                      Court officials were slow to reduce the project’s scope, causing additional
                      delays, which in turn necessitated additional reductions. For example,
                      GSA did not simplify the building-high atrium that was initially envisioned
                      for the new courthouse until January 2006, even though the judiciary had
                      repeatedly expressed concerns about the construction and maintenance
                      costs of the atrium since 2002. As a result, cost estimates for the project
                      tripled to over $1.1 billion, and GSA ultimately cancelled the 41-courtroom
                      L.A. courthouse project in 2006.

                      Since 2006, GSA and the judiciary were slow to agree upon how to
                      proceed with the L.A. courthouse project for which appropriated funds still
                      remain available. As we reported in 2008, the judiciary supported a
                      scaled-back option that included constructing a new 36-courtroom, 45-
                      chamber courthouse and returning the Spring Street Courthouse to GSA
                      for other uses. GSA also considered two less costly options, such as
                      simply continuing to house the L.A. Court in both the Roybal and Spring
                      Street Courthouse locations. In 2012, with the judiciary’s support, GSA
                      issued a request for proposal for contractors to design and build a
                      600,000 square-foot courthouse with 24 courtrooms and 32 chambers,
                      which would be used in conjunction with 25 of the existing courtrooms in
                      the Roybal Courthouse. However, this new plan will not address one of
                      the principal justifications for the original project—that the L.A. Court be
                      centralized at one site. Instead, it will increase the distance between the
                      Roybal Courthouse and the planned second court location as well as the
                      distance to the Metropolitan Detention Center from where prisoners must
                      be transported.




                      Page 5                                                             GAO-12-968T
                         The three causes of extra space in courthouses—and the associated
Planning Issues GAO      extra cost—that we identified in 2010 also apply to the L.A. courthouse
Previously Identified    project. These include:
that Cause Extra         1. exceeding the congressionally authorized size,
Space in Courthouses     2. overestimating the number of judges a courthouse would have, and
                         3. not planning for courtroom sharing among judges.
Also Apply to the L.A.
Courthouse Project       First, as previously mentioned, the initial design of the L.A. courthouse
                         exceeded the congressionally authorized size by 13 courtrooms and more
                         than 260,000 square feet. In addition, we found in 2010 that large
                         atriums—like the one in the L.A. courthouse design—contributed to size
                         overages in several courthouses completed since 2000. Because the
                         courthouse design exceeded the congressionally authorized size, this led
                         to delays that contributed to the tripling of estimated costs and to GSA’s
                         ultimately canceling the project in 2006.

                         Second, judiciary overestimated how many judges the L.A. Court would
                         need and therefore designed a courthouse with more courtrooms than
                         necessary. Specifically, we reported in 2004 that the proposed L.A.
                         courthouse was designed to include courtrooms for 61 judges—the 47
                         existing district and magistrate judges and 14 additional judges expected
                         authorized or appointed by 2011. However, in 2012, rather than having an
                         additional 14 judges, the L.A. Court has just 45 district and magistrate
                         judges—2 fewer than we reported in 2004. 6 This outcome calls into
                         question the assumptions made in the original proposals.

                         Third, judiciary did not fully take advantage of courtroom sharing by
                         judges, which led to building more courtrooms than necessary. Our 2010
                         analysis indicated that the judiciary could reduce the number of
                         courtrooms it needs by having judges share courtrooms. Table 1
                         illustrates the basic courtroom sharing that is possible based on
                         judiciary’s courtroom usage data.




                         6
                           According to the judiciary, the L.A. Court currently has 30 authorized district judgeships
                         including 2 vacancies, plus 17 magistrate judgeships.




                         Page 6                                                                          GAO-12-968T
                        Table 1: Courtroom-Sharing Possibilities Based on GAO Model and Analysis

                         Judges                              Dedicated courtrooms needed
                         3 district judges                   2 district courtrooms
                         3 senior judges                     1 district courtroom
                         1 district and 1 senior judge       1 district courtroom
                         2 magistrate judges                 1 magistrate courtroom
                        Source: GAO.


                        According to GSA in November 2011, the new plan would bring the total
                        number of district courtrooms in Los Angeles to 49, even though there are
                        only 45 district judges currently located and working in Los Angeles.
                        Applying the courtroom-sharing model that we developed, the 45 current
                        district judges would need 25 courtrooms to adequately address all
                        scheduled courtroom time—the number of district courtrooms that GSA
                        currently has planned for the Roybal Courthouse. Even this model would
                        leave the courtrooms unused much of the time, since 60 percent of
                        scheduled court events are canceled or postponed within one week of the
                        event’s original date. Additional efficiencies might also be realized if the
                        L.A. Court’s judges were to use a centralized courtroom scheduling
                        system.


                        Judiciary officials said the judiciary has not applied its new process for
It Is Unclear Whether   prioritizing projects to the L.A. courthouse project because it was
the L.A. Courthouse     grandfathered under the old process and, like 10 of the 12 courthouses
                        on the current 5-year plan for construction, will not be reevaluated under
Project Remains a       the new process. However, if the L. A. courthouse project were
High Priority Project   reevaluated, it is not clear that it would retain the same high priority status
                        from when it was first justified in 2000.

                        •    Judiciary’s projected increase in judges has not occurred. As we
                             mentioned previously, none of the 14 additional judges expected by
                             2011 have been authorized or appointed. In fact, the L.A. Court has 2
                             fewer judges than we reported in 2004. This suggests that the
                             previous space projections are currently outdated.
                        •    The original security assessment did not include the Roybal
                             Courthouse. The security score under the old prioritization process
                             indicated that the L.A. Court lacked proper circulation routes for
                             prisoners, but this problem does not apply to the Roybal Courthouse,
                             a key court location being considered for continued use.




                        Page 7                                                              GAO-12-968T
                      •   The old prioritization process did not consider the potential for
                          reducing the number of needed courtrooms by having judges share
                          courtrooms.
                      •   Other potential construction projects that were also rated high priority
                          in 2012 under the original prioritization process have been
                          reevaluated and have subsequently dropped in priority. Specifically,
                          the judiciary applied its new prioritization process to two of the
                          courtrooms on the list of projects in its 2010 5-year plan—San Jose,
                          California, and Greenbelt, Maryland—and decided to remove both of
                          them from the high-priority, 5-year construction plan. Formerly among
                          the top 12 most urgent courthouse projects, the San Jose project now
                          ranks 79th and the Greenbelt project now ranks 91st among potential
                          courthouse projects.

                      In conclusion, the L.A. courthouse construction project has been
                      repeatedly delayed and costs have increased for more than a decade.
                      The current plan to build a new 24-courtroom courthouse would provide
                      more courtrooms than are needed and will not solve the problem of a split
                      court posed by two separate buildings—one of the key justifications for
                      the project. We are currently studying the judiciary’s new prioritization
                      process as it relates to projects currently on the judiciary’s 5-year plan for
                      this subcommittee and will continue to review these issues as part of our
                      ongoing work. Chairman Denham, Ranking Member Norton, and
                      Members of the Subcommittee, this concludes our testimony. I would be
                      pleased to answer any questions you might have at this time.


                      For further information on this testimony, please contact Mark L.
Contact Information   Goldstein, (202) 512-2834 or by e-mail at goldsteinm@gao.gov. Contact
                      points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may
                      be found on the last page of this statement. Individuals making key
                      contributions to this testimony include Keith Cunningham (Assistant
                      Director), George Depaoli, James Leonard, and Amy Rosewarne.




(543311)
                      Page 8                                                             GAO-12-968T
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