CVC Opening Delayed

Posted January 26, 2004 at 6:08pm

Officials managing the Capitol Visitor Center construction have decided to push back until spring 2006 the date the facility will open to the public, three to six months later than previously planned.

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman made the decision in conjunction with Congressional leadership over the past couple months after consulting with the two main contractors for the project.

CVC spokesman Tom Fontana emphasized, however, that the visitor center would still support the January 2005 presidential inauguration, as planned. The roof plate is expected to be completed by then and will form the ground of the remodeled East Front Plaza, which will host media vans, motorcades and the president’s Marine One helicopter for the inauguration.

“The inaugural is the date that cannot slip and will not slip, but right now we feel that’s more than doable,” he said.

“Substantial completion,” when the contractor hands over the proverbial keys to Congress, remains set for fall 2005, a date that has not been changed for at least a year. The 35,000 square feet of House and Senate expansion space on each side of the visitor center is set to be completed by the summer of 2006.

“Final completion,” when the public can use the facility, was previously scheduled to occur in December 2005. The buffer between those dates — when Congress will occupy the $373.5 million facility and ready it for general use — has been extended for 90 to 180 days, until spring 2006.

“We’re still trying to beat that,” Fontana said of the new opening date, adding that the decision came down to the question of whether to spend millions to meet the December 2005 deadline or push it back a few months. “How much would it cost to bring it back, and is that warranted? There really wasn’t anything magical about December 2005.”

The team of Architect of the Capitol officials, contractors and leadership staffers that manages the project decided not to do a partial opening, Fontana said. Originally, project managers planned to open various elements of the center as they were completed. For example, initially the structure could be opened to screen visitors and perhaps show an orientation film in one of the two theaters, but not have the exhibition space, gift shops or cafeteria fully operational.

“We agreed that we wanted to do this the right way,” he said. “Do we really want to open the exhibition space without the documents?”

A team of designers is currently determining which artifacts will be brought in to tell Congress’ story. Such historical documents are highly sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, humidity and dust, and the environment has to be stable for up to three months before they can be safely introduced.

Last July, Hantman told the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch that “we fully expect [the construction] will culminate in December 2005 when the CVC will open its doors to the public.”

But excavation and other construction activities for the 580,000-square-foot center were considerably slowed last year by the record number of rainy days.

Crews also had to reduce their pace considerably when a well was found during excavation under House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) office. Believed to date back to construction of the original House wing in 1795, the existence of the well wasn’t in the blueprints and caused crews to spend six to eight weeks working on a section of the foundation that normally would have taken them six to eight days.

Project managers were able to make up some, but not all, of that lost time. “It’s really a cumulative effect,” Fontana said.

Construction of the second sequence of the project (which includes mechanical, electrical, plumbing and finishing work) also began behind schedule. On a timeline released in February 2002, sequence two construction was set to begin in January 2003, but it didn’t actually start until April.

The completion date for the CVC has been pushed back multiple times, for reasons often out of project managers’ control. The project wasn’t fully funded when original timelines were set and Congress has significantly expanded its scope since then. When Congressional leaders officially broke ground in 2000, the expectation was the entire center would be open by the January 2005 inauguration.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose committee oversees the project, said he has often felt the completion dates were overly optimistic.

“I thought sometimes the timeframe was ambitious,” Ney said. “I was hoping for 2005, now it’s 2006. I am not in a panic at this point in time.”