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Tunnel Vision

In taking an aggressive stance against any additional spending for the Capitol Visitor Center, House negotiators on the legislative branch appropriations conference no doubt made their message to Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman clear: You are being watched very closely.

In the end — and over the strong objections of a number of House Members — the conference approved an additional $48 million for completion of the project, which was originally slated to cost $373.5 million. In the process, conferees gave a reprieve to a planned tunnel leading from the CVC to the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, over which there is deep division among Members. While Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, had called the tunnel “a disaster waiting to be dug,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) referred to it as a boon for security that could be a potential “life-saving measure.”

The truth as to how valuable the tunnel will prove to be undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. The tunnel, which is expected to cost $8 million to $12 million to finish, has already proven somewhat troublesome as the path of the passage will come uncomfortably close to Amtrak rail tunnels whose precise location is not known.

But when it comes to the CVC, lawmakers need to come to grips with a number of important facts. Congress is in the midst of the biggest construction project in the history of the institution, one that was conceived to both improve security and enhance the public’s experience in visiting Washington. The Congressional campus is in a state of chaos and will be until the project is completed. And we are closing in on the 2005 presidential inauguration — the target date for when only the roof plate of the East Front Plaza is supposed to be complete — fast. Whether that deadline was ever realistic is now beside the point. Cutting corners — whether on a tunnel or a planned 450-seat auditorium — is unlikely to change the timeline or the price tag significantly.

Perhaps the most constructive solution we’ve heard for getting the completion process under control came from Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Kirk (leave it to a former House staffer to have a handle on the specifics), who noted that the conference’s approval of an amendment to limit spending on the tunnel to $10 million would have “no effect” unless contractors on the project formally agreed to such conditions. Holding contractors to specific cost and timing targets seems like a reasonable idea to us.

It strikes us as naive to believe that anyone could have looked at even the broad concept for the CVC and the tight timeline for its completion and not had two words come to mind: money pit.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the project is important and needs to be wrapped up as soon as humanly possible. Congress should certainly keep a close eye on Hantman, but it would be disastrous to micromanage or slow the project at this point.

There’s an old saying: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. When it comes to the CVC, Congress needs to reject that bit of wisdom and, if anything, dig faster — albeit sensibly.

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