Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) revealed Wednesday that the Capitol Visitor Center project is likely to cost about $45 million more than originally expected, based in part on an audit about to be released by the General Accounting Office.
Kingston, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said he does not “think we’re going to appropriate any more money” for the subterranean center, which already has a $373.5 million budget.
In order to deal with the higher price tag, Kingston said in an interview, “Anything that is an option needs to be cut out. We want [Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman] to come up with some line items that can be cut out of there.”
Kingston, who was the first Member to publicly put a dollar figure on the cost overrun, has been an outspoken critic of the project’s budget and scope since he took over the subcommittee earlier this year.
The House and Senate leadership in both parties have consistently voiced their support for the 580,000-square-foot project.
But Members soon could have to vote on whether to give the project an infusion of funds. It would be the first time more money was appropriated for the project due to cost overruns.
Three assessments — by the AOC, the GAO and the consulting firm Tishman Construction Corp. — have been done to estimate the project’s cost-to-complete, and all have concluded that it needs more money. The GAO report is due out next week.
“We understand that the figure is within a range of approximately 15 percent of the $303.5 million budget for the CVC, which excludes the $70 million for the House and Senate build-out,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said in a prepared statement in reference to the upcoming GAO report.
A sizeable chunk of the cost overrun comes from the $144 million contract for the second phase of the project, which was about 10 percent to 15 percent higher than the figure the Architect expected to spend on that segment. Other financial setbacks derived from an inordinately wet winter and spring and unexpected utility work due to decades-old, inaccurate maps.
Additionally, project managers have found an array of not-so-pleasant surprises left over from the previous East Front extension, done in 1962, including: six steel beams apparently used as a retaining wall buried under the soil, an undocumented 14-foot-diameter well near the House side; and large amounts of unused utility hardware.
“They left a lot of the sheeting, the shoring under the surface,” during the East Front extension, Hantman said. “Centex [Construction Co.] will be submitting change orders for that work.”
Fontana said GAO will recommend that additional funds be available to accommodate future unforeseen conditions — constituting the largest portion of the recommended additional funds.
Additionally, Fontana said, “the scope of preconstruction work, including utility relocation, tree and historic preservation, creation of new parking and pedestrian zones, installation of sound reduction window units on the East Front and other activities have exceeded original expectations, which were not fully anticipated in 1999 when the original budget was established.”
Although the CVC was originally projected to cost $265 million when Congress approved it in 1999, the jump to the current $373.5 million figure came after two large infusions that changed the project’s scope. After Sept. 11, 2001, $38.5 million was included in an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for security upgrades.
Later Congress approved $70 million to build out 170,000 square feet of “shell space” divided between the two chambers. The space was originally designated to be left unfinished, but planners and Congressional leaders thought it made more sense to finish it while a contractor was already on site.
While Kingston is a high-profile critic, the project seems to have many more well-placed supporters than detractors. Last week Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) met with Hantman to impress upon the Architect his strong support for finishing the project without “cutting corners.”
Mica, a former developer and a member of the Capitol Preservation Commission, referenced the West Front extension completed in 1987, which he said was done in a “second-class fashion.” He emphasized to Hantman that it would be a “tragedy” to finish the job with cheap materials on what is likely the last major expansion of the Capitol.
“I know we have budget deficits and all, but this is something for generations,” Mica said.
House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) agreed with Mica’s sentiment.
“There were complications,” Ney said of the various unforeseen problems the project has encountered, indicating that he would support seeing it through completion, as planned. “I think it’s a good project. I think the report is going to give us a better handle on the costs.”
Kingston has suggested taking out the auditorium as a way to save costs, but Ney indicated that would serve no one. As it stands, Ney said, “There’s really not place to hold 700 people” in the Capitol complex, except in the Cannon House Office Building.
“Some people just don’t like this project. I really don’t see what you can cut out,” Ney said, adding that support for the project in the House is wide and deep.
Kingston disagreed. “If the CVC had an up-or-down vote on the House floor right now, it wouldn’t pass,” he said.
But House Administration ranking member John Larson (D-Conn.) said the Architect and the project in general are having as much of a “public relations problem” as anything else.
Some cost overruns are justified, he said, “but if it’s not laid out and documented, then obviously it raises concerns. We have a responsibility to make sure we are informing the Members.
“One of the failures — and I am not saying this to be overly critical — it’s a matter of common sense … to make sure you are keeping the oversight committees abreast,” which the AOC hasn’t always done so well, Larson added. “Don’t keep people in the dark.”
Last Monday, AOC staff set up a display near the House floor on the East Front to give Members a better idea of what’s going on in the project. Larson and Fontana both indicated that Members were very supportive.
“I couldn’t believe the overwhelming support for the project,” Fontana said. “A lot of them were just unaware” of its complexity and scope.
A Congressional leadership aide said that’s been consistent since the project’s inception — most rank-and-file Members just don’t know what’s going on.
“At the end of the day is it going to cost more? Yes. But it’s within the margin of error for a project of this size and scope,” the aide said. “There really are lots of opportunities for people to come find out about it. And they don’t.”
“I’ve had people say [the AOC] changed the scope. No, [Congress] changed the scope. People act like we bought a $100 million building and then they turned around and it was a $300 million building. That’s not what happened.”