FBI HQ: A lost opportunity

Our view: Abrupt cancellation of FBI project is a politically-suspect blow to public safety, to Prince George’s County, to Maryland, and to the politicians who backed the project

A long-planned public works project with the potential to be transformative for a community facing economic challenges is suddenly terminated by an inexperienced Republican administration with claims of real estate expertise and frugality, leaving a majority African-American Maryland subdivision angry and disappointed. Are we discussing Baltimore’s State Center project? The $2.9 billion Red Line? Nope, this time it’s Prince George’s County left holding the bag with the Trump administration’s announcement Tuesday that the search for a new headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been terminated.

The General Services Administration, which had settled on three possible sites, two of them (Greenbelt and Landover) in Prince George’s (with the third in Springfield, Va.), blamed a shortfall in funding for nixing the project. Exactly what happens next for the FBI isn’t so clear, but some of the implications certainly are: An administration that is under a high-profile and active investigation by the FBI is choosing to throw a monkey wrench into efforts to replace a headquarters building that is nothing short of a disaster area. Further delaying the building’s replacement means hampering the agency’s public safety mission. The FBI’s existing facilities fall woefully short of what’s needed to coordinate its activities (employees are now scattered across the D.C. area in about 30 smaller, often costly short-term GSA leases) and to bring the agency into 21st century technology standards — not to mention keep agents safe from attack.

The decision does not come wholly by surprise, of course. Many Republicans in Congress were already balking at the $2 billion cost of the project, and just two months ago, Congress shortchanged its funding by hundreds of millions of dollars, as the GSA noted. Adding a layer of complexity to the planned headquarters was the GSA’s plan to sell the existing J. Edgar Hoover Building to developers, which was supposed to save the federal government money. What it succeeded in doing was to drag out the project which, in turn, has allowed President Donald Trump to kill it — despite the fact the federal government has already invested at least $390 million toward it. Nor is it clear whether the GSA’s action will save the government any money.

The reversal is also a huge blow to Maryland’s congressional delegation and to Gov. Larry Hogan, the son of the late former Prince George’s County Executive Lawrence Hogan Sr., who had lobbied vigorously for the Prince George’s sites. It also looks suspiciously political given the leadership vacuum at the agency level, with the GSA operating without a permanent administrator as President Trump has yet to name one. Christopher Wray, the FBI’s acting director, has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

What makes the decision particularly galling is that the headquarters offered the Trump administration a chance to advance an important economic development project in the suburban D.C. county most in need of a boost and the only one with an African-American majority. While neighbors like Fairfax County in Virginia and next-door Montgomery County in Maryland are famously affluent, Prince George’s has often been bypassed in both corporate and government investments. About one in 10 Prince George’s Countians live below the poverty line. That’s average by Maryland’s statewide standards, but it’s abysmal compared to Fairfax County where it’s closer to one in 17 and the average household income is $112,000, or about 50 percent higher than in Prince George’s.

Nine months ago, we wondered if Maryland’s effort to attract the new FBI headquarters would be thwarted by the widely anticipated election of Hillary Clinton, whose running mate Tim Kaine, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate. She also has close ties to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. That neither state has much allegiance to President Trump (voters in both backed Ms. Clinton last November) may have played a role. On the other hand, might a president who continues to attack former FBI Director James Comey on Twitter (most recently, claiming falsely that Mr. Comey leaked classified information to the media) love to cause hardship to his beloved agency, if only out of spite?

Given how this administration rolls, it’s difficult to believe the conflict wasn’t a factor, no matter the implications for the safety and security of the country.

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