DENVER -- Over budget by nearly $1 billion, the cost of the recently opened Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Aurora are, by now, well known.
However, the FOX31 Problem Solvers keep discovering ways the VA has used tax dollars in ways that don't seem to make much sense.
The Problem Solvers' latest discovery is a nearly five-year program which provided a fleet of employee-only shuttle buses to drive staff between the North and South doors of the facility during the construction phase.
A FOX31 investigative team spent significant time over the summer recording empty buses which drove in short circles.
At times, three airport-passenger-type shuttles ran on 12-hour schedules. Each bus had an assigned driver. Based on our observations, the shuttle vehicles idled with engines running the entire day. Operators would sit and wait for about half an hour in one of two roundabouts before swapping positions at a different door. If a passenger did arrive to be transported, that bus would drive the staff person to the opposing door, while an empty shuttle would drive the 176 yards to swap positions with the prior shuttle.
In a statement from spokesperson, Brandy Morrison, the VA explained why the deparment started the service:
“Shuttle services began prior to construction of the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center. Building A (Clinic Building South) was the only building on the campus and an agreement between VA and USAF resulted in the Buckley AFB clinic being temporarily located on the 4th floor of Building A. The shuttle’s purpose was to ensure that Buckley AFB patients and VA employees had access to Building A during construction.”
The VA told FOX31 it did not have a line-item budget for the transportation program, so would or could not calculate the total cost of the operation.
Based on records requests, conversations with VA employees and reviewing federal personnel records, the FOX31 Problem Solvers came up with our own cost estimate, which the VA did not dispute.
The shuttles started running in 2013 and stopped last month after FOX31 started asking questions about the cost.
The VA hired WG-6 employees to drive the shuttles. Based on pay scales, the average hourly wage for such employees is around $20 per hour.
FOX31 figured two full-time drivers worked approximately 1,462 days.
The VA said it “leased” the shuttles from General Services Administration over the final three years of the program at $768.30 a month per vehicle, plus $0.562 per mile.
Bottom line: the short bus route for VA employees cost at least $769,000 in tax funds.
Without an actual budget from the VA, the FOX31 Problem Solvers could not accurately or fairly calculate the cost of fuel, shuttle maintenance, mileage or the occasional use of a third shuttle and a third driver, so we did not include those. If added to the $769,000 known total, the cost of the transportation program could be several hundred thousand dollars more.
FOX31’s investigative team has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to force the VA in Washington DC to provide invoices or financial records, so we might be able to add those additional unknown costs to the total amount at a later date.
Deputy Director of Eastern Colorado VA Health Care System Duane Gill defended the program during on-camera interview.
“I think it was a smart program. Like I said, the cost was pretty minimal. Staff was ours. We leased from the GSA at a good rate, so I think it was worthwhile. It’s one of those things where if you have situation, an accident on a construction site, patient (or) employee; not sure where they are going – I think it was [a] smart thing,” said Gill.
Over a specific three-day period this summer, the FOX31 Problem Solvers recorded and/or witnessed very few riders -- fewer than three persons an hour on all shuttles. The buses were empty except for the driver for hours on end. We did not witness a rush of passengers.
When we asked the VA for passenger logs or proof of ridership, FOX31 instead received an “estimate” of ridership over the course of the program. The VA said that number was 440,000 passengers.
That’s an average of 300 staff riders for each of the 1462 days the shuttles operated.
Again, FOX31 has filed public records requests to see how the VA “estimated” its ridership numbers.
In response to our follow-up questions regarding the lack of riders we witnessed, in comparison with what the VA was describing as nearly full vans, Morrison wrote:
“The Buckley Clinic moved off our campus on May 1, 2018. With their departure and the ending of construction, there were less shuttle riders, resulting in the closure of this particular shuttle service on July 27, 2018. For the copies of the logs, we will need you to file a FOIA request.”
We did and are told to expect a reply within several months, but in the past, federal agencies have taken up to one year to comply with FOIA requests.