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When construction of the Capitol Visitor Center was originally approved, the target date for its completion was Inauguration Day 2005. That date was jettisoned in 2001, but project officials predicted the center would be “substantially competed” by that target. Last October, they said they were shooting for a “soft opening,” so that the CVC could furnish security screening for inauguration visitors.

Lately, though, the public claims have been slipping further. The latest assurance is only that center’s roof will be built on time. Now, the advertised date for “substantial completion” is September 2005. Frankly, we’re worried that, two years from now, the project may be substantially short of completion. We urge Congressional leaders to get a handle on the schedule, establish firm benchmarks, make them public — and be sure that Congress isn’t embarrassed when the whole world watches the next inauguration.

As Roll Call reported Monday, CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said it will not be known whether the visitor center will be partially open by Inauguration Day until a contractor is selected for the second and final phase of the project, which includes electrical, plumbing and finishing work. Bids for the contract are due Friday, and selection is to be made in March or early April.

“We expect that contractor to tell us what they can do” in terms of completion dates, Fontana said. A series of amendments added to the Phase 2 request for proposal over the past few weeks has loosened some of the timing requirements and “removed any hard requirements in terms of any completion stage,” Fontana said. Uh-oh.

But not to worry, he said. The East Front Plaza will be “substantially complete” by January 2005, enough to accommodate basic inaugural activities such as motorcades and staging areas for the media. That is to say, the roof of the underground CVC will be built and people can walk on top of it. Skylights will be installed. But what will be underneath? And if undertaken, efforts to partially open the subterranean center to provide inaugural security screening — something officials talked about as recently as last fall — could complicate construction and even delay the final completion date.

We hope that House leaders — and, especially, the chairmen of the House Administration and Senate Rules and Administration committees and the two legislative branch Appropriations subcommittees — will give appropriate oversight to the CVC and demand a finely tuned schedule, with benchmarks, ensuring that the project doesn’t drag further. It would help everybody if the schedule and the benchmarks were made public. Someday, the CVC will be Congress’ welcoming face to the American public. Let’s not be ashamed of its opening.

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