The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced under pressure last fall that it would conduct an intensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed site of their long-delayed new VA hospital on Brownsboro Road near the Watterson Expressway exit. However, while a draft report for the EIS was expected in February, Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet and the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs say the VA has been reluctant to provide details about the EIS process and their ongoing concerns about the shortcomings of the Brownsboro location.
After months of delays and passed deadlines for the completion of a less-thorough environmental assessment (EA) for the Brownsboro location — and a unanimous resolution by Metro Council urging the VA to conduct an EIS — the VA finally announced on Oct. 28 that it would conduct the environmental impact statement. That announcement also came a month after the VA’s Office of Inspector General released a report concluding the VA may have overpaid more than $3 million for the Brownsboro property, did not conduct proper appraisal reviews, and misrepresented information provided to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. As IL reported that October, investigators from a House veterans subcommittee also conducted many interviews in Louisville last summer, seeking information about the purchase of the property and deficiencies of that site.
Some neighbors near the proposed Brownsboro site and citizen groups like Grow Smart Louisville have blasted that location as too small for a new hospital and lacking enough existing infrastructure, noting that traffic in the area is already heavily congested and other sites — such as a renovation of the current Zorn Avenue location or a downtown site — would work better for veterans. The University of Louisville also has maintained its advocacy for a new downtown location for the VA hospital, arguing that its proximity to specialty care units and university medical staff and residents would give veterans the highest quality of health care.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald three weeks after the VA announced its intention to finally conduct an EIS for the site, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida — chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs — criticized the VA’s lack of response to their oversight subcommittee’s inquiries about their delayed environmental compliance efforts and gave a detailed list of questions and concerns about that process going forward. The VA responded in a letter on Dec. 30 that barely grazed an answer to those questions, and a staffer for Rep. Miller told IL that the VA has not provided any additional information since that time.
In the letter, Rep. Miller questioned whether the new EIS would simply rehash old topics from the previous environmental assessment or choose to delve into major concerns, such as traffic and the small size of the Brownsboro parcel.
“Based on the responses that will be received in the public scoping process, VA should give honest consideration to remaining areas of concern, but not needlessly spend time on issues that have already been found to pose no impact,” wrote Miller. “VA’s presentation in the Federal Register begs the question whether VA is merely going through the regulatory motions.”
After noting that the VA should update and disclose studies on traffic for the location, Miller added that the Brownsboro parcel “does not allow for any significant expansion beyond VA’s current architectural design” that has already been expanded by 25 percent, urging the VA to “critically examine whether this parcel is sufficiently large for its long-term needs.”
Also noting that the VA’s EIS is considering the St. Joseph site east of I-265 and south of Factory Lane as the only alternative to the Brownsboro site, Miller added that residential developer Ball Homes already has bought half of the land on this alternative location for a dense housing development, which “suggests the ‘St. Joseph Site’ is under merely procedural consideration.”
Miller also doubted if the VA ever seriously considered alternative sites like downtown and Fegenbush Lane, noting that while a 29-acre downtown location was initially ruled out due to land acquisition difficulties, U of L and Metro Government had perviously offered to help overcome those hurdles.
“None of VA’s site search documentation makes any mention that the University of Louisville and City of Louisville in 2009 proposed to help VA acquire not only that 29-acre site, but alternatively another 25-acre site slightly to the northeast, or any other nearby configuration that VA thought more appropriate,” wrote Miller. “The city and university offered to use eminent domain to help VA acquire land, offered their tax increment financing to defray VA’s land costs, and offered nearly $22 million in capital infrastructure avoidance.”
“Did the VA ever consider the University of Louisville’s proposal?” asked Miller. “If so, why is it not documented in the programmatic EA? Why did the programmatic EA only consider the 29-acre parcel… and not any other seemingly more workable downtown site?”
Miller closed by saying the EIS “must begin with a transparent scoping process and involve a meaningful exchange with Veterans, the local government, and the public, not represent just a hollow regulatory exercise. VA must be honest about the site’s challenges, not gloss over them, and be responsible with mitigation.”
In the VA’s response over a month later, VA Chief of Staff Robert Nabors told Miller that he regretted the timing of the EIS announcement and did not intend to delay or avoid responding to the previous week’s inquiries by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight Investigations for the VA whose investigators had conducted the previous interviews on the matter in Louisville. While noting that Miller’s letter “raises pertinent questions about the project,” few of those questions were answered or addressed, besides noting that the VA remains committed to picking the best location for veterans and taxpayers.
“VA will consider the existing Zorn site and the Brownsboro land, as well as private sector opportunities to contract service in the area to determine the most cost effective method to deliver Veteran health care in the Louisville area,” said Nabors. “Should this assessment determine that there is a lower cost opportunity for delivery of health care, the project scope will be re-evaluated accordingly to make the best decision for Veteran care, as well as best use of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Told of the letters exchanged last year, Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet — who was a leading force behind the council resolution calling for an EIS and has major concerns with the Brownsboro site in her district — said the lack of information provided by the VA was “not shocking” based on her own difficulty in extracting information from the federal agency.
“Rep. Miller’s points were spot on,” Leet told IL. “He’s singing from the same songbook that I am, and getting the same lack of response as I am. The VA’s response didn’t address any of his comments, or even say they would commit to responding to those in any way shape or form. They could have said that they’ll address that within the content of the EIS… it’s pretty sad when our folks in Congress can’t get answers from the VA.”
Leet noted that after a district meeting last month in which she said the VA was not responding to her questions about the delayed EIS process, only then did the VA issue a press release saying they were still working on the environmental impact statement and did not have a set date for its completion. Leet said she was later told informally by the VA that the EIS would be complete by late-June or mid-July.
“We’re truly in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog,” said Leet. “They seem to only react when someone pushes them to react. Otherwise they just kind of hope that people aren’t paying attention.”
Noting the many shortcomings of the proposed Brownsboro site — which would be exacerbated by the closing of the VA’s community-based outpatient clinics in Shively, Newburg and St. Matthews — Leet said she still holds out hope that the VA will change its mind.
“I’m holding onto the belief and hope that we can continue to do what’s right by our veterans and actually pick a better location,” said Leet. “I have demands in my head of what I would like to see happen. Can I orchestrate it or get the right people together to orchestrate it? I continue to work on that. There are a whole lot of moving parts.”
Leet also mentioned the exorbitant $900 million cost for the proposed Brownsboro location on a greenfield needing significant infrastructure improvements, with a cost-per-bed price tag which is five times what a new state-of-the-art facility should cost. Citing the VA boondoggles for new hospital projects in many parts of the country in which costs have inflated by up to three times their original price tag along with long delays, Leet fears the same mess of federal government bureaucracy in Louisville.
“Look at their last 10 years of projects… try to find one that was done on budget and on time,” said Leet. “How do we hold them accountable? That’s the hard part for the public. We can’t fire the federal government. We can’t fire anybody at the VA for not doing their job.”
Kentucky’s congressional delegation has largely refrained from the debate over VA hospital site selection in Louisville, mostly urging for construction at the currently proposed site to proceed as soon as possible after a decade of delays. At the announcement of the completion of the Parklands at Floyd Forks last month, Sen. Mitch McConnell noted the Parklands project — consisting of hundreds of acres and costing nearly $200 million — was first announced at the same time as plans for a new VA hospital, which has not even begun.
Leet surmised that such elected officials are likely staying out of the fight over the hospital’s location in order to avoid the inevitable political blowback that would follow, as “somebody’s always going to be upset or dissatisfied when it comes to site selection. There’s no way that you can please everyone.”
Eric Gunderson of Grow Smart Louisville said in a statement to IL that he hopes the current EIS process and congressional scrutiny will lead to the VA reconsidering the Brownsboro location, and he is glad that Rep. Miller and his House committee are “finally realizing what we have been saying for the past four years.”
“The VA has proven time and again across the country that they are more interested in the business of being the VA rather than taking care of the veterans who they are supposed to be serving and the taxpayers who fund their projects,” said Gunderson. “It’s time for local veterans, citizens and leaders to stop waiting around for the VA to impose their will on us and tell them, ‘Not here. Not our veterans. We all deserve better.'”
Laura Schafsnitz, spokeswoman for the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville, wrote in an email to IL that their independent contractor is currently working on the draft EIS that will be released publicly for review once finished, though “no date has been set for the release.”
Copies of the letters between Rep. Miller and the VA late last year can be read in full below: