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CVC Watch

The Capitol Visitor Center has earned a shaky reputation over the years because of a rising price tag, constant design changes and an ever-changing opening date.

But things have been a little more positive over the past few months. For the first time, the Architect of the Capitol and the Government Accountability Office agree on the project’s opening date (November 2008) and cost ($621 million). Oversight hearings have been less contentious and more detail-oriented. And now, the actual construction site reportedly looks almost finished.

In a sign of growing enthusiasm, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) has been showing off the new digs to several staffers over the past few weeks. On Wednesday, he’ll give another grand tour to a group of reporters, along with some staff from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. [IMGCAP(1)]

Since becoming ranking member of the committee, Mica has taken a keen interest in following the center’s progress, said Justin Harclerode, spokesman for the committee’s Republican members.

“He’s just proud of it,” he said. “He realizes there has been concerns with it [but] he thinks the finished product is going to be worth the cost.”

The CVC’s current state is certainly far from a construction site.

Recent aerial photos show park-like landscaping where there formerly only was dirt and concrete. And with the interior work mostly completed, officials are starting to install the center’s exhibits, some of which were delivered last week. Construction crews already have installed the benches for the House and Senate theaters in the Exhibition Hall, which will mimic the real thing and include live video feeds from the chamber floor. There also will be a model of the Capitol Dome, replicated on a 1:20 scale and including detailed reproductions of the architecture and the Rotunda paintings.

Of course, some disagreements continue. Last week, Mica objected to renaming the center’s Great Hall in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol. A bill introduced by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) aims to change the center’s main room to ‘Emancipation Hall,’ a name Mica said was inappropriate because no central meeting space in the Capitol has ever been named after a single person or a group of people. He also argued that the change could end up costing too much.

But the bill made it through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Mica views it as a small disagreement, Harclerode said. Indeed, he says, the project seems to be moving along well.

In fact, much of the work is now focused on cleanup, with crews vacuuming carpets, buffing stone floors and polishing metal fixtures in the Great Hall and other areas. Next week, the AOC fire marshal will begin the final testing process for the fire and life-safety systems, CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said.

Despite the progress, the scheduled opening date is still a year away, in part because testing the complex safety systems takes months.

The project should get a legislative check-up in the next couple of weeks. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch canceled its monthly oversight hearing last month but should be rescheduling it soon, according to Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

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