Lab makes another bid for new science complex

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory will hold a bidder’s conference Tuesday, looking for new kind of developer for an overdue project that is trying once again to get off the ground.

“This is absolutely key to us,” said Terry Wallace, the lab’s senior science administrator, during a recent interview. He was talking about the lab’s determination to find a better workplace for hundreds of scientists who are now scattered around the 40 square miles of campus in what is general acknowledged to be inadequate, overcrowded, and inefficient old buildings and transportable structures.

“Of our 9 million square feet, the great majority, perhaps 80 percent, was built in the ’50s,” he said. “It’s not cost effective. It’s not allowing us to do an awful lot of things we’d like to be doing.”

Reviving efforts that began in earnest four years ago, the project will attempt once again to provide modern, state-of-the-art laboratory and workspace for about 1,400 scientists, Wallace said.

There may be a few bumps in the road.

As the Request for Proposal for the project states, “Budgetary pressures and constraints have forced federal agencies to consider new approaches for financing federal projects beyond the more traditional line-item approach. Increasingly, many agencies have begun arranging for private developers to fund various infrastructure projects.”

Two years ago, the laboratory’s attempt to set up a third-party financial arrangement with the help of the U.S. Postal Service quickly unraveled a few days after the details of the arrangement were obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request by Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Wallace said it wasn’t because of the watchdog group’s disclosure, but “unfortunate timing,” because it came at a time when the postal service was under extreme pressures and in the process of dismissing officials for problems related to business practices.

This time around, he said, every effort has been made to make sure everybody is informed, from Congressional committees and staff to key committee members to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency that supervises the nuclear weapons complex.

Nuclear Watch has requested and has been approved to participate in the bidding conference.

Rather than financing the complex as a line item in an energy department appropriation bill, this project would be financed by a private developer who would raise funds for design and construction of the building that would then be paid for by a long-term lease. The lease would be for a five-year term, with three additional five-year extensions under the same terms.

The government would be able to opt out with a 12-month written notice.

“If the facility lease is cancelled, public access to the site for future tenants will be from the Ski Hill Bypass Road,” the RFP states.

Instead of approval from congressional appropriators, this kind of financing is approved by the Office of Management and Budget in the executive branch. The Armed Services Committee also has 60 days to review the project, because it is located on an NNSA site.

“Once a developer is selected, NNSA says yes or no,” Wallace said, noting that the lab has been careful not to rule out the possibility of financing the project as regular line-item appropriation, if that were possible.

Depending on design criteria, the value of the dollar and the price of concrete, the cost the complex is estimated to be in the $250 million to $400 million range.

“We would like to be in this building by January 2011,” Wallace said.

The bidding conference begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Best Western Hilltop House Hotel in Los Alamos. Only interested parties already enrolled to attend will be able to register for the meeting, which will include a tour of the proposed construction site.

Among the groups in the Science, Technology and Engineering directorate that Wallace leads and that would be located in the Science Complex are earth and environmental sciences, advanced theory, global climate and ocean modeling research, computational biology, bioenergy, bioterrorism, energy security, infrastructure modeling research and development, and unclassified computing.

The RFP is available at www.lanl.gov/orgs/sup/procurement/solicitations/lasc/rfp.shtml.