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CVC Official Defends Costs, Management

As construction of the Capitol Visitor Center moves into its final phase, project officials have assumed a defensive posture against charges of overspending and mismanagement that have plagued the project in recent years.

“We’ve made mistakes, which is hard not to do on a project this size,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana acknowledged during a recent tour of the construction site, one of dozens he has given in recent weeks. But, he added, “I think we’re doing a great job.”

While construction of the 588,000-square-foot center has drawn considerable criticism from both Congressional lawmakers and the news media in recent years, Fontana asserted those condemnations often involve a misunderstanding of the project’s scope and its price tag, which now stands at $421 million.

“There’s a lot riding on the back of this moniker CVC,” Fontana said, explaining that the construction site is home to what are essentially four separate projects.

In addition to the actual visitor’s center — which will include a cafeteria with a 600-person capacity, two orientation theaters, an exhibition gallery, two gift shops and more than two dozen new restrooms — Fontana listed security enhancements mandated by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; renovation of the Capitol’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system; and the completion of 170,000 square feet of additional space for the House and Senate.

In addition, two tunnels are being constructed. One, for trucks, runs beneath the Senate side of the Capitol grounds and is designed to provide a more secure and aesthetically pleasing access route for deliveries and the removal of trash. The second will connect the CVC to the Library of Congress.

It is in part that combination of projects, Fontana believes, that has led to what he sees as repeated misinterpretations in media accounts of the project’s budget, which has grown significantly from its original $265 million figure.

In particular, Fontana noted the House and Senate expansion areas, which he estimated account for close to one-third of the project’s size.

When originally designed, the areas were envisioned as 85,000 square feet of unfinished space on either side of the central CVC structure. Each chamber was expected to pay for the completion of the areas at a later date.

But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress appropriated $70 million to finish the space and added another $38.5 million in security enhancements for the facility.

In fact, since work on the project began, Fontana said, there have been 23 significant changes in the project’s design.

“There’s a ripple effect through the project with every design change,” he added.

While much of the additional spending came at Congress’ direction, project managers did request more funding as well. Architect of the Capitol officials, who directly oversee the project, attributed a $48 million infusion in fiscal 2004 to unforeseen conditions, additional management costs and increases in security requirements.

All together, costs for the CVC now hover around 20 percent above its original budget, but Fontana defended the project, comparing it to construction of the Washington Convention Center, which opened in 2003 after similarly exceeding its budget.

And it is likely that CVC officials will need to revive those same arguments in the fiscal 2006 appropriations process, when they seek another increase in the project’s budget.

According to the Architect’s budget request, as outlined in the Bush administration’s budget proposal released earlier this year, the CVC will require another $36.9 million in funds to accommodate costs including administration and construction management fees; modifications to the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, which is connected to the CVC via the tunnel; exhibits; equipment purchases; and additional costs incurred because of delays in the project.

Before the close of the 108th Congress, members of the now-defunct House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch had criticized management of the project after a Government Accountability Office analysis suggested the CVC could require up to $100 million in additional funds before its completion.

Still, while the project has faced repeated setbacks — the center had at one time been slated to open for the January 2005 presidential inauguration — Fontana asserted the project is actually just nine months behind the schedule set when the AOC broke ground in 1998.

In addition to delays caused by record wet weather in 2003 and unexpected site conditions, such as inaccurately documented utility lines, Fontana noted that the CVC site also faced a virtual shutdown in the three months following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Construction has gone more smoothly in recent months, however, with no “schedule slippage” in four months, Fontana said.

“[B]arring any significant unforeseen circumstances or additional scope changes, we are confident that we can open the doors of the CVC in September 2006,” Fontana wrote in an e-mail follow-up to the tour.

In the meantime, construction work at the center, where major structural elements were completed in December, has shifted to the completion of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, as well as the installation of thousands of pounds of marble and sandstone throughout the complex.

“Stone is probably the most central element of the project from here,” Fontana said.

He estimated that portion of the project, which includes materials brought from quarries in Pennsylvania and Tennessee, will total about $35 million.

In the coming months, CVC officials expect the number of workers assigned to the construction site will increase dramatically, from about 250 to more than 600, including skilled electricians, painters and pipe fitters.

The majority of those new employees will likely arrive on the site sometime this fall, Fontana said, when steam heat begins to be available within the structure.

Those employees should bring the CVC to “substantial completion” by June 2006, Fontana said, at which time the first Congressional employees, such as tour guides or other personnel assigned to work at the site, could have access to the structure.

“You need a couple of months for people to get acclimated to the space,” Fontana said.

Congressional officials have yet to determine who will manage the facility (the Architect of the Capitol or an outside agency), but are expected to address the issue sometime this session.

As outlined in the administration budget, the AOC’s funding request for fiscal 2006 also includes $35.3 million in funds for the visitor center’s operation costs.

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