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Cost of Police Radio Replacement at $100M

Capitol Police officials said Wednesday that it will cost almost $100 million to replace the department’s outdated and unreliable radios — a number that is almost three times the original estimate.

But Chief Phillip Morse assured Members that the latest price tag is accurate and will enable the department to replace a radio system that is incompatible with local agencies and prone to frequent failures.

“The need for a new system is pretty critical,— Morse said at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “Every minute counts on a system like this, and this system has failed us.—

The department’s 25-year-old radio system has been a subject of controversy for years, with Capitol Police officials pushing Congress for the funds while Members cringe at the cost.

This year, the Capitol Police sidestepped House appropriators and went directly to the White House, asking that $71 million be included in President Barack Obama’s supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congress has already appropriated $10 million for the project, and officials would request the rest of the $100 million in a later appropriations bill.

On Wednesday, House appropriators seemed receptive to the supplemental but questioned the reliability of the cost estimate. A design study for the project won’t be completed for another six to eight months, meaning police officials still don’t have all the technical specifications.

“I think the need has been demonstrated. I think the urgency has been demonstrated,— said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the subcommittee. “But it’s still sticking in my craw that there is six to eight months left in this study.—

Last year, Wasserman Schultz and then-ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) halted the radio upgrade because the cost jumped from $35 million to $70 million. At the time, the department’s explanation for the increase was an “amorphous blob,— Wasserman Schultz said.

Since then, committee staff has worked with the department to come up with the latest figure.

The $100 million would pay for an entire new system built essentially from scratch, with 2,400 encrypted radios that would work in the Capitol’s tunnels, garages and windowless rooms.

It would take three years to implement the system, and the infrastructure would only last about 15 years.

Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday that she was “comfortable— with that figure and supported the supplemental. But to ensure that money was spent well — and to protect against unnecessary cost increases — she wants her subcommittee to hand it to the Capitol Police in stages.

“There’s just a lot of wiggle room,— she said after the hearing. “If we’re going to appropriate funding, then fence it off.—

Other Members of the committee also expressed concern with the price tag.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) questioned whether all 2,400 radios had to be encrypted.

Right now, the department has about 1,700 officers; the remainder of the radios would be for other Congressional employees (such as tour guides) and backup.

“Does every radio need to be encrypted?— LaTourette asked Morse. “I see a big difference between people engaging in traffic control and people engaging in protecting the Capitol against terrorists.—

Morse promised to get back to Members with the answer to that question, but he stressed the importance of getting the money appropriated before the department’s radio system completely fails.

The supplemental, he said, ensures that the funds don’t get delayed by a late budget process and a continuing resolution.

“We just simply don’t know what’s going to happen in the budget cycle,— he said. The supplemental “just keeps us on track and on time.—

The funding for the radios is a significant portion of the Capitol Police’s request of about $410 million for fiscal 2010. The 11 percent increase includes funds for 76 more officers to help reduce overtime, which is expected to cost the department about $22 million this year.

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