A dispute continues to simmer in Congress over revised plans to build a much-delayed federal courthouse in Los Angeles. A House committee has voted to cancel the project but Democrats in California's congressional delegation, as well as the General Services Administration and the judiciary, want to see it built.

The differences were in plain view at a Nov. 4 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee that oversees authorizing federal buildings.

Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) who is leading the opposition to the  plan, contends that building a new courthouse is a waste of money.

Denham, whose district is well northeast of L.A.,  is the prime architect of a measure t that would delete funds approved earlier for the courthouse, but unspent, and also sell the federally owned land on which it would be built.

The full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved Denham's bill on Oct. 13. It has yet to move to a floor vote. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but there has been no action on it yet.

Robert Peck, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, told Denham's subcommittee that the project is the judiciary’s top facilities project nationwide and can be constructed within the $366 million the agency has in existing, but unused, appropriations.

GSA and the judiciary say the new building is needed because of security, seismic and space shortcomings in the two other federal courts in L.A.: the Spring Street courthouse, built in 1938 and the Edward R. Roybal federal building and courthouse, built in 1992.

U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, who is based in Los Angeles, told the subcommittee, “All those familiar with the existing facilities in Los Angeles agree that there are serious operational, infrastructure and security concerns that must be addressed."

But Denham said, “We know the primary justification for a new L.A. courthouse is wrong—there are fewer judges in L.A. now than there were in 1997.”

He said that over the last 11 years the judiciary had projected there would be between 71 and 82 federal judges in Los Angeles by 2011 or 2014. But there now are 59 judges and 61 courtrooms.

The project has a long history. Back in fiscal year 2001, GSA had proposed building a new, 712,000-gross-sq-ft courthouse at an estimated total cost of $266 million.

GSA later increased the building's planned size to slightly more than 1 million sq ft. Mark Goldstein, the Government Accountability Office's director for physical infrastructure issues, testified that the project was delayed because GSA decided to design a building larger than Congress had authorized, the agency and the judiciary didn't agree on the new project size.

Congress appropriated $399.6 million for the project from 2001 through 2005.
Of that sum, GSA has spent about $40 million, for site acquisition and design.

The agency issued a call for construction proposals in 2006 but Peck said costs for materials and labor climbed and the bid solicitation was "canceled due to lack of competition."

Because of the delays, he said, GSA cancelled the project in 2006. A couple of years later, the agency, seeking to put its $360 million in unspent appropriations to use,  was looking at some possible revised plans.

According to GAO's Goldstein, GSA presented three alternatives to the judges in L.A. They picked the most costly option, which included a new courthouse and adding several more courtrooms to the Roybal building. The price tag would have been $1.1 billion, including the $399.6 million already appropriated.

Now, GSA and the judiciary have agreed on a new, 650,000-sq-ft alternative.

It would include 24 courtrooms for district court judges and 32 chambers for active and senior district judges as well as space for court clerk and U.S. Marshals service activities.

Peck said of the revised plan, "This project is a worthwhile investment that will enable GSA to improve the security and meet functional needs of the court, while taking advantage of the unfortunate downturn in the market to build [the facility] within the current appropriation...."

If a new Los Angeles courthouse is built, Peck said GSA will look at whether the Spring Street building can be renovated to house some of the other federal agencies that now occupy about 1 million sq ft of leased space in the area.

The new GSA-Judiciary plan has its defenders in Congress, including California's two Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both Democrats), as well as 16 Democratic members of the state's delegation in the U.S. House.

They wrote to GSA on Oct. 28, urging the agency "to proceed immediately with construction" of the courthouse, saying, "It has been delayed too long."

That followed an Oct. 21 letter to GSA from Denham and the subcommittee's top Democrat, Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the District of Columbia, saying they expect the agency not to obligate funds for the project until they submit a request to fund the revised plan and Congress actually authorizes the money.