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CVC Readies for Inaugural

Although major portions of the Capitol’s East Front remain strewn with construction equipment and related materials, Congressional officials said the ongoing Capitol Visitor Center project will not impede events for the 55th presidential inaugural scheduled to take place next week.

While the 588,000-square-foot subterranean center was once scheduled to be open to the public for inaugural activities, a construction fence will now halve the East Front and hide construction materials on the site’s western end. Still, Congressional officials said the space will sufficiently support planned activities including a military parade.

“Right now, everyone is pleased with the level of completion and the aesthetics on the plaza,” asserted CVC spokesman Tom Fontana.

According to a spokesman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which oversees the swearing-in ceremony and related events on the Capitol grounds, the East Front events will include a joint-service parade during which President Bush will review the troops from the East Front stairs, as well as the commander-in-chief’s departure ceremony.

The portion of the East Front used in the ceremony is now covered with 160,000 paving stones, which masons began placing in April 2004. The stones form the roof of the underground visitor center.

In the days preceding the ceremony, Fontana noted, workers are focused on “fine-tuning” the area.

“Right now it’s a matter of washing down the stones, cleaning up the area and resituating the fences so there’s a clear path for the motorcade,” Fontana said. “It’s mostly cosmetics at this point.”

In recent weeks, workers have focused on other aesthetic details, such as adding sod to small areas on the roof’s eastern end and erecting temporary covers for the center’s six skylights. (During construction of the center, those openings are used as entrances to deliver materials to the three floors located below ground level.)

In addition, crews were working last week to restore sidewalks along the recently repaved Northwest Drive and to complete work on a large cement planter erected in the drive to help control traffic. Fontana said the area will be repainted before the inaugural to redefine traffic lanes and parking spaces.

“The goal is to have everything cleaned up before the inauguration,” Fontana said, adding that all of the work is intended to be permanent: “It’s not anything we’ll have to go back in and rip out.”

In the meantime, Fontana said, construction will continue on the site until the afternoon of Jan. 19, including landscaping and security perimeter work on the East Front, as well as construction within the building’s three subterranean levels. Work will resume on the site Jan. 21.

With major structural work on the facility having been completed by mid-December, efforts are now focused on finishing work inside the structure, including the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

“The big effort now is to fireproof the entire structure,” Fontana said last week. That process will involve coating the structure’s steel portions with a fire-resistant substance.

Construction crews are also focused on waterproofing the eastern half of the visitor center’s roof and completing stone work in that area.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee, is a frequent critic of the project but acknowledged he is pleased that it will not impede inaugural plans.

“I wish it was more done, but we’re glad to have whatever is completed,” Kingston said Thursday.

But at least one House lawmaker said he remains displeased with progress on the center, regardless of whether it is able to handle some inaugural activities.

“The fact is, it’s two years behind and twice the cost,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the project.

The Virginia lawmaker was referring to a recent Government Accountability Office analysis that suggested the $421 million center — now slated to open in the summer of 2006 — could require an additional $100 million in funds before its completion.

When Congress broke ground on the project in 2000, the visitor center, then scheduled to open in January 2005, was estimated to cost $265 million.

The CVC’s price tag inflated, however, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Congress expanded the project’s scope and appropriated $38.5 million for security enhancements, along with an additional $70 million for the completion of additional space allocated for the House and Senate on each side of the visitor center.

Unanticipated delays — ranging from almost unprecedentedly wet weather in 2003 to unexpected site conditions, such as inaccurately documented utility lines — have also impeded the project’s progress and increased costs, prompting lawmakers to provide the project with a $48 million infusion in the fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill.

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