The Bush administration wants to slash all construction funds for the federal Bureau of Prisons in fiscal 2006. If Congress goes along, it would mark the second year in a row the bureau’s construction budget was "zeroed out." What’s more, this year the White House wants to rescind $314 million in funds appropriated earlier, but not obligated. If the rescission sticks, it could slow projects now in early stages.

Bureau of Prisons
Declining Facilities Budget 

Fiscal Years  
Appropriations ($mil.)
Sources: Office of Management and Budget, Senate,  House Appropriations Committees, Justice Dept. 

The overall 2006 request for the agency’s buildings and facilities account is $170 million, down 10% from this year’s appropriation. Bureau Director Harley G. Lappin told a House appropriations panel March 17 the request would "continue our ongoing maintenance and repair program…." In 2002, facilities got $814 million, including $650 million for new construction. But the facilities budget trend has been downward (see table).

This year’s elimination of construction aid is bad news for industry. "That’s definitely a concern for our members," especially if Congress doesn’t add funds, says Marco Giamberardino, director of the Associated General Contractors’ federal and heavy construction division. Industry officials no doubt hope Congress will be more generous. But if the cutback is approved, it will only increase prison crowding and the strain on operations and maintenance, he says.

The number of federal inmates continues to exceed prison space. "We’re still badly overcrowded," says Scott Higgins, the bureau’s chief of design and construction. Lappin testified that the federal prison population has climbed from about 25,000 in 1980 to more than 181,000 as of early March. Despite a wave of construction over the past decade, bureau facilities were 41% over rated capacity at the end of fiscal 2004.

The picture should improve as new prisons open, Lappin notes. The agency is seeking 2006 funds to activate prisons in Tucson, Butner, N.C., and Hazelton, W.Va., adding 2,752 beds. Additions to existing Colorado and Minnesota prisons also are on tap. "From a cost perspective, expansion of existing institutions is the least expensive technique for increasing Bureau of Prisons capacity," Lappin told appropriators. He says the agency’s goal is to trim overcrowding to 30% above capacity by 2010.

Higgins says the bureau has some projects under construction. It also is reviewing design-build proposals for a new facility in West Virginia’s McDowell County and hopes to get a short list soon. The bureau also is doing environmental studies for a new prison in Berlin, N.H., but hasn’t advertised that job yet.

Rail: Mineta Claims Amtrak Plan Would Upgrade Corridor
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, pushing the Bush administration’s proposal to revamp Amtrak, contends the plan would include major improvements to Northeast Corridor infrastructure.

Speaking in Boston March 23, Mineta said Amtrak "is dying." He says the Transportation Dept. proposes to take over the corridor "while we bring this once great network back into a state of good repair." Later, the corridor would be transferred to states, which would be eligible for federal matching aid.

Amtrak President David Gunn calls the proposal "irresponsible." It will be up to Congress to decide its fate. Lawmakers rejected last year’s proposal to cut Amtrak’s budget 25%. Mineta says he plans to send Congress his Amtrak legislative proposal in April.

Ethanol: Bills Could Spur Construction

There’s action in the Senate to set a federal standard for producing ethanol and other renewable fuels. If enacted, the legislation will boost construction of fuels-production facilities, an industry official says.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee cleared a bill March 16 to set a standard of 6 billion gallons of ethanol and other renewable fuels by 2012. Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) intends to attach it to energy legislation. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) also introduced a bill that lifts the bar to 8 billion gallons. In 2004, production totaled 3.4 billion gallons.

In the past three years, more than 30 ethanol production facilities were built and at least 15 more are under way, says Monte Shaw, a Renewable Fuels Association spokesman. He says a federal standard would stimulate construction further.

Disasters: After Earthquake, U.S. Aid Heads to Indonesia

U.S. assistance is going to Indonesia after an 8.7-magnitude earthquake on March 28. Early estimates are that up to 80% of buildings on two islands were damaged or destroyed, says State Dept. deputy spokesman Adam Ereli. He says "significant already moving to the area," including $100,000 to CARE and Save the Children. The U.S. Agency for International Development "will review future needs, future assistance," he says.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski