It’s not as if Architect of the Capitol officials were ready to break out the champagne, but Wednesday’s Capitol Visitor Center progress hearing did begin with a bit more positive, if not almost celebratory, atmosphere than previous hearings held this year.
The reason? The massive East Front project is coming off of a spring season that didn’t see any new delays in “critical path” construction areas, such as the installation of the facility’s complex fire detection system.
“Historically this project has lost two weeks per month and it’s significant that we have not lost any time on the critical path these last three months,” acting Architect Stephen Ayers reported to members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch Wednesday morning.
But lest anyone lose perspective, subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) noted, “We’re celebrating a lack of slippages. It’s troubling when that’s our point of celebration.”
During the hearing, GAO officials helping to oversee the project did note that there had been several slippages in some of the CVC’s “near critical” construction areas and those delays are eating away at some of the contingency time that Ayers built into the project when he took over as acting Architect earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Ayers and recently hired CVC Project Executive Bernie Ungar — a former Government Accountability Office employee who studied CVC issues for more than a decade — expressed markedly different levels of confidence in the likelihood that the agency would achieve its targeted project opening date of September 2008. Ungar indicated he felt more comfortable with a November 2008 time frame.
Nevertheless, subcommittee ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) praised AOC officials for getting the project “back on track.”
“We are hands-on and I think making more progress than we’ve seen in a long, long time,” Wamp said.
After the hearing, Wasserman Schultz said the current feeling of momentum could be traced to some specific management changes — such as hiring Ungar — and a bipartisan push in recent months by Congressional overseers to hold the AOC and its contractors accountable as they never have been before.
“Quite honestly we made it clear that their reputations were at stake,” Wasserman Schultz said of meetings that she and Wamp held with the AOC’s main contractor, Manhattan Construction, and the CVC’s project management firm, Gilbane Building Co., in recent weeks.
“I think we’ve been able to light a fire under everybody,” she said. “We have reached a point where there is a lot more communication and from here on out there’s no wiggle room that’s going to be allowed.”
Wasserman Schultz added that top officials from both Gilbane and Manhattan will testify at the subcommittee’s next hearing on the CVC, the panel’s fifth since the beginning of the year.
“Mr. Wamp and I really felt like the results of the first few hearings made it clear we need to shorten the leash even more,” she said. “We felt we were at the end of our rope and felt that the only way to make it crystal clear for the contractors was for us to eyeball them and say, ‘Look, these are the problems as we understand them. You need to take care of these problems and we are very serious.’”
The AOC’s CVC contractors have never appeared as scheduled witnesses in past hearings, but they occasionally were called on to answer specific questions during some of the 15 monthly progress hearings Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) held on the CVC during the 109th Congress.
A spokesman for Allard said Wednesday that his boss is happy to see the hard work that many people have put into the CVC over the years has now resulted in positive momentum.
“When that place finally opens it’s going to be a real gem for everybody,” Allard spokesman Steve Wymer said. “I think we’re going to move more and more toward celebrating the beauty of the place and everything else. And as we do move toward that, it’s important to recognize that it was really the dedication of a lot of people, including Senator Allard, who were there to deal with the less fun times.”