With some Architect of the Capitol officials conceding that another two-month delay in the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center is likely, it appears to be only a matter of time before the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facility is officially bumped to November 2008.
The Government Accountability Office is now predicting a two-month schedule slippage and even the Architect of the Capitol’s CVC project manager told appropriators at a hearing Tuesday that a November opening is “more likely” than the September 2008 date that acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers and CVC contractors currently are predicting.
The reason for the latest slippage is neither new nor surprising. As an underground structure built at one of the most high-profile (and highly secure) sites in world, the CVC’s fire- and life-safety systems are some of the most complex ever designed, and the installation and testing of those systems have long been defined as the project’s “critical path.” Any delays in that work has the potential to wreak havoc with the overall schedule.
“The bottom line is that in spite of assurances each month that lost time will be made up, delays continue to occur,” said Terry Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, who has been helping Congress monitor the CVC’s construction since the 109th Congress.
Ayers and the AOC contractors who joined him at Tuesday’s progress hearing, convened by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, continue to believe that a September 2008 opening is obtainable. Their confidence stems from the fact that when Ayers set that date not long after taking charge of the project in the spring, he told Congressional overseers that his revised completion plan included three months of “float time” so they could account for unexpected delays. Adding such a cushion to the schedule was a strategy that Ayers’ predecessor, Alan Hantman, never attempted even after he was widely criticized for announcing five different expected opening dates for the facility from June 2005 to November 2006.
But, according the GAO, the CVC teams have lost three weeks in the past two months alone for work on the fire alarm system.
“Their challenge is to finish before they burn up the two months of contingency they have left,” Dorn said.
But even that float time already is in peril.
In July, the AOC’s fire marshal submitted his plan for completing the final testing of the fire- and life-safety systems, a process he said will take three months longer than the approximately six months that the AOC once predicted. Bernard Ungar, the CVC project manager, said at one point during Tuesday’s hearing that given the complexity of the fire marshal’s plan, he considers it more likely the testing process would take 11 months or perhaps a year.
Some Members have questioned the AOC on why testing the system is expected to take so long.
A year ago, Hantman told Senate appropriators that the CVC “is virtually the nation’s beta test site for the very comprehensive security and fire- and life-safety systems that are being installed.”
And as far back as September 2005, Hantman was using the term “beta test site” for the CVC’s chem-bio security systems, noting that much of what was being put in place had “never been done before.”
The system that Hantman referred to, and that currently is the root of so much heartache for those watching the project, includes some 3,000 smoke detection devices that are interlinked not just with each other but also with the facility’s massive heating ventilation and air conditioning system and a series of classified chemical and biological detection systems.
Many of those chem-bio systems were added to the project in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax attack on Capitol Hill in October of that year. While several additional projects have contributed to the soaring price tag — estimated now at around $600 million — additional security enhancements in the wake of 2001 account for some $38.5 million in new work.
As the system is designed, if a fire were to break out in the CVC, the smoke detectors automatically could trigger the ventilation systems to shut down in areas near the fire so as not to feed the flames. At the same time, security systems automatically could unlock certain doors to allow for quick access to escape routes. Those routes also could be pressurized by the HVAC systems to help keep the fire from spreading into crucial exit corridors.
Ayers stressed that the fire marshal’s testing plan is a preliminary one and that the AOC hopes to find ways to streamline the process to reduce the time required while not jeopardizing any of the myriad safety systems.
“Over the next few weeks, the project team will be assessing the time needed to complete these tests in relationship with the adjusted project schedule,” Ayers said. “Some of the things the project team will be looking at are whether or not the testing can be done on two or three shifts as opposed to one shift and how soon the final testing activities may begin.”
The latest potential setback came as disappointing, but not surprising, news to subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has been holding monthly progress hearings on the CVC since the beginning of the 110th Congress.
“I have for a couple of months anticipated that we would be opening sometime between September and November,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I have not had any confidence for some time now that September was actually likely. It would not be surprising for it to be that they feel that November is more likely. It would be news if we go to December, it would be news if we didn’t make the [January 2009] inauguration.”
By the next progress hearing, scheduled to take place in September, Wasserman Schultz wants the AOC and its contractor not only to complete an updated cost assessment for the CVC — something that hasn’t been done for close to a year — but also to come to an agreement on a contract completion date.
Since the AOC and its contractors currently are working without a set contract completion date, assessing damages for late work has become a complicated affair. And along with incentives for meeting goals, Wasserman Schultz said she wants stronger disincentives in place to get the project completed on time.
“I think there should be carrots and sticks,” she said, adding that the current disincentive package “is not meaningful. … If this were the first time we were dealing with carrots and sticks and completion target dates then we could give them the benefit of the doubt, but they have lost the privilege of having the benefit of the doubt.”
In other CVC developments, subcommittee ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) was given some good news in his ongoing effort (along with Illinois Democratic Rep. Jessie Jackson Jr.) to change the name of the CVC’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall. Ayers informed the panel that the estimated cost of making that change has been lowered from $250,000 to $150,000. One reason Wamp has given for making the change is to avoid confusion with the Great Hall at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, and Ayers said that some of the CVC signage that already has been ordered and paid for could be used instead at the LOC.