Social Security data center project encounters delays

Settling on a location for the facility has proved difficult, with some lawmakers concerned the administration isn't shopping for the best deal.

A stimulus project to replace an aging Social Security Administration data center is more than six months behind schedule due to a disagreement over where to locate the upgraded computer facility.

Social Security turned to the General Services Administration in 2009 for locating and building the new center to store the demographic, wage and benefit data of nearly every American. The effort, which received $500 million under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is critical because the existing 30-year-old building soon will be unable to support the new technology SSA expects to acquire for handling a surge in benefit applications from baby boomer retirees and Americans suffering financial hardship, according to agency officials.

The government planned to purchase land for the facility in March, according to the initial project plans. But SSA and GSA officials postponed the site selection, amid questions from House Ways and Means Committee members and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, about the cost efficiency of using stimulus money for new property rather than taking advantage of available space on SSA's campus in Woodlawn, Md.

SSA pushed back site selection to September so GSA could thoroughly study the Woodlawn vicinity as a possible location, according to a revised Recovery Act plan Social Security issued in June. GSA now anticipates buying the property in December, according to the document. Substantial construction should be complete by October 2013.

The updated plan states that, after a formal review, SSA and staff from the House Ways and Means Committee, which had requested the cost-benefit analysis, agreed GSA should continue searching for a site off-campus.

But on Wednesday, an aide for Grassley, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, said the senator still is concerned about the government spending money to buy land, when property on Social Security's campus could be reconfigured to function as a new data center instead.

Nevertheless, Grassley agrees SSA needs a modern main data facility to fulfill its mission, the aide added. The senator will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the Obama administration finds the most cost-effective location, the staffer said.

Social Security spokeswoman Kia Green on Wednesday said the agency remains troubled about the growing risk of structural problems in its old building, and continues to work closely with GSA, Congress and the administration to move the project forward. The effort is part of a broader overhaul of the agency's information technology infrastructure aimed at eliminating disability hearings backlogs, accelerating claims processing and facilitating more online transactions.

GSA officials declined to comment.