Veterans Affairs VA HospitalThe release of an environmental study for the proposed site of Louisville’s new Veterans Affairs hospital has been pushed back yet again, increasing questions about the long-delayed project with an estimated construction cost that has risen to $935 million.

Facing pressure from Metro Council and neighbors near the site off Brownsboro Road, the VA announced last October that it would conduct a legally required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the property — more thorough than the previous environmental assessment released in 2014 — originally estimating its release in February 2016. Without explanation, that deadline was later pushed back to late June, and local VA officials said in July that despite the fact that the draft EIS already had been completed, they anticipated its release late this summer.

Laura Schafsnitz, the spokeswoman for Louisville’s Robley Rex VA Medical Center, tells IL they currently have no estimate for when the draft EIS will be released, adding that their office has not been told anything about its findings. Even when local VA officials previously expected the EIS to be released this summer, they said it would not be finalized until next year, following a public comment period.

In a lengthy statement to IL, Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, continued her criticism of the VA’s leadership on this matter, saying they have let down local veterans throughout the entire process.

“This study should have been completed prior to the purchase of the land,” said Leet. “It should have been completed in 180 days or less. If they can’t oversee the timely completion of a study why should we trust their ability to build a hospital on time and on budget? At this point I lack any confidence in the leadership of the VA to get this project right. Another delay is inexcusable and quite frankly dishonest.”

While Kentucky’s congressional delegation has called for pushing forward with the current Brownsboro site to replace the aging facility on Zorn Avenue, Leet has joined with local critics questioning the appropriateness of this location and the VA’s process of choosing and acquiring that property, the price of which the VA Inspector General reported last year might have been inflated by up to $3 million.

Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7
Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7

“We must stop defending poor choice after poor choice with a ‘just build it’ attitude,” said Leet. “We must demand accountability and transparency from the VA. Stop giving VA leadership a free pass to waste more time and more money while our Veterans wait for what they have already earned.”

Congressman Jeff Miller, the Republican chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has openly questioned the VA’s selection of the Brownsboro site and sought to remove funding for it until the EIS is completed. However, a continuing resolution passed by Congress last week included authorization of $150 million for the Louisville project.

Miller has cited dramatic delays and cost overruns at a VA hospital project in the Denver area as an example of mismanagement and ineptitude in the federal department when it comes to such projects, which was backed up by a VA Inspector General report released two weeks ago. That report showed senior VA officials withheld information from Congress about massive overruns at the Denver project, the estimated cost of which has ballooned from $600 million to $1.7 billion. A bipartisan group of congressmen in Miller’s committee have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether VA executives perjured themselves in their testimony, and documents sought by the committee through a subpoena have not yet been delivered by the VA.

While local VA officials in Louisville await the release of the EIS, they are currently expanding the parking lot of their existing medical facility on Zorn. Last year they expanded their parking at the facility by 42 spaces and next month they are expected to finish a new 84-space parking lot. Another 165-space parking lot at the facility is expected to be completed next April.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to multiple emails and voicemails from IL over the past week asking for their comment on this story.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]