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It’s a Deal: Visitor Center to Open in November 2008

With no major construction delays anticipated, officials from the Architect of the Capitol and the Government Accountability Office announced on Tuesday they have reached a consensus: They expect the Capitol Visitor Center to open in November 2008 at a price tag of $621 million.

The agreement represents a significant milestone for the project, House appropriators noted at their monthly oversight hearing. With the CVC consistently plagued by delays, the two agencies had bickered for years over what the eventual opening date and cost would be.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said her panel would continue to actively monitor the project to keep it on track.

“I have a greater degree of confidence,” Wasserman Schultz said following Tuesday’s hearing. “I think the accountability measures we put in place over the past 10 months have borne some fruit.”

Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers testified that the substantial completion date for the CVC is officially set for Nov. 15.

“We continue to make good progress to complete the finishing touches,” Ayers testified.

The AOC will need an additional $39 million in appropriated funds to finish the CVC, he said, and Wasserman Schultz responded by saying she will require the AOC to submit quarterly reports to the subcommittee to show how the funds will be used.

“The accountability measures have lit a fire under them and made it clear to them that there will be consequences,” Wasserman Schultz noted.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), whose committee will be in charge of CVC oversight once it opens, said he is pleased by the current cost estimate.

“Much of the increase in costs in the current estimate reflects an increased emphasis on testing and assuring the effectiveness of the CVC’s cutting-edge life-safety systems,” Brady said. “While I share the concern over the history of cost overruns associated with the project, I feel strongly that a price tag cannot be placed on the safety of our visitors.”

The bulk of the work that remains at the CVC is to test those systems, among the most complex ever designed for a government facility.

That effort will be spearheaded by Kenneth Lauziere, the AOC’s fire marshal. Lauziere told the Appropriations subcommittee that the plan is to run two shifts of testing, so that if a problem is encountered, the overall process will not stop.

And AOC officials hope to be awarded a temporary certificate of occupancy by summer 2008, so they can begin planning for visitors while the final tests take place, Ayers said.

“It is my goal that at the end of the day we will not only have a safe and magnificent facility, but one that will stand the test of time,” Lauziere said.

If there are any future delays, it will come from issues that arise during the testing process, said Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues.

Dorn, who has monitored the project regularly, testified that while the team has encountered normal problems thus far, some technical problems might not be evident.

In his report to the committee, Dorn also noted other minor delays that aren’t likely to postpone the overall opening date. For example, work in the House and Senate expansion spaces has fallen behind, potentially delaying that area by seven weeks.

“Our biggest concern is, over time if everything is slipping, you’re going to have to do everything at once,” Dorn said.

Tours in Trouble?

Discussions also took place on Tuesday over how staff-led tours will be run once the facility opens — or if they will even continue.

The CVC is designed to facilitate visitors in a particular way, AOC officials noted. That includes an orientation film and a stop in Exhibition Hall, which chronicles the history of Congress and the Capitol.

Bringing in staff to do tours might create unnecessary complications for both tour guides and Member offices, Ayers noted. But, he added, “that decision still needs to be made.”

Some “non-Congressional professionals” on Capitol Hill believe that the quality of the Capitol tours would improve if staff tours were eliminated, Wasserman Schultz said.

Concerns also linger that Congressional staffers are not well-equipped to deal with emergency situations. The Congresswoman quickly dismissed those arguments.

“Those are two things that are relatively easy to correct,” Wasserman Schultz said. “One, is you give more intensive training to Members’ Congressional staff than they currently get now. And No. 2 is you give them emergency training.”

Wasserman Schultz added that staff-led tours provide visitors with a uniquely personal experience when they visit Washington, D.C. The Congresswoman noted that as she was preparing for Tuesday’s hearing, she received three handwritten thank-you notes from constituents who went on a staff-led tour.

Brady — whose committee ultimately will decide what happens with the tours — agreed with Wasserman Schultz.

“Members will still play a crucial role in the tour process and we are evaluating new ideas, such as tour tickets that are personalized for specific Members and districts,” Brady said. “Members’ offices will be able to integrate constituents into tours.”

The Great Name-Change Debate

Appropriators weren’t the only ones conducting oversight of the visitors center.

A second CVC-related hearing was held on Tuesday afternoon to discuss changing the name of the facility’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, has offered a measure to officially change the name in the spending bill.

But the Senate has yet to pass its version of the legislation, keeping the House bill in a state of limbo. So, Wamp teamed up with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to introduce a stand-alone bill to get the name change made quickly.

Speaking before the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Wamp noted that many visitors to the Capitol are unaware that slaves helped build it.

“We should use this as an opportunity to bring the Congress to a better place,” Wamp said. “This is bigger than us. Please do not delay.”

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who serves as ranking member of the full committee, said he agrees with the concept of naming a room in the CVC in honor of the slaves who built the Capitol.

But Mica argued that the Great Hall is not the correct space, and suggested that the CVC’s Exhibition Hall or the Congressional Auditorium, which will serve an an alternate chamber in the CVC, might be better suited.

Jackson noted that the contribution of slaves has long been neglected at the Capitol, and it would be inappropriate to finally acknowledge that contribution in a “side room.”

Jackson pointed to Statuary Hall, where statues are erected to Confederates such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, but nothing exists to note slavery.

“No one wants to deal with the painful past so instead we suppress the story and suppress everyone’s history,” Jackson said. “We must tell and honest and informed story.”

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