It’s official: The Capitol Visitor Center has met today’s substantial completion deadline.
After years of delays and cost overruns, more than 98 percent of construction is complete at the CVC, acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers told appropriators at an oversight hearing on Wednesday. Now, officials will focus on the fire- and life-safety tests that must be conducted before the CVC can open in November 2008.
“We don’t have any moving targets anymore,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “We’ve been hitting those targets, and I’m really proud of that.”
But nobody’s opening the bottles of champagne quite yet, as the Government Accountability Office cautioned that further delays could emerge if fire-safety testing on the facility does not begin soon.
Not entirely content with a testing plan presented by the fire marshal, AOC officials have gotten outside recommendations from agencies such as the Office of Compliance and General Services Administration, Ayers said. The goal, he said, is to create an effective plan that also saves time and money.
But delaying the testing to get those outside opinions might actually only serve to push things back, said Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues.
“Ultimately, the Architect has got to make a decision to go with the way the fire marshal wants to do it now, or go with the other opinions,” Dorn said.
Seeking to head off any further delays, Wasserman Schultz asked the AOC to submit its fire-safety testing plan to the committee within seven days.
“We still have a year to go before the CVC opens,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And we must make sure we don’t get complacent.”
With construction wrapping up and other life-safety tests already well under way at the CVC, much of the focus of Wednesday’s hearing centered on how the facility will run once it opens.
The future of staff-led Capitol tours took up much of the time. AOC officials have recommended that all tours begin in the CVC, with officials from the Capitol Guide Service leading the way. Staffers would accompany select groups to point out state-specific monuments and statues, if requested.
Official guides are more knowledgeable about Capitol history and are better equipped to assist police during an emergency, supporters have argued.
The plan also is beneficial because all visitors would enter the Capitol through the CVC rather than tunnels in the Cannon House Office Building and Russell Senate Office Building, as they do now, noted Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse.
“It’s not conducive to the level of screening we are talking about. It’s not the location to be doing that,” Morse said. “My position as chief is to give you the best security recommendation. … That is the [entrance] of the CVC.”
But hundreds of Members have demanded traditional staff tours remain on Capitol Hill, saying they help connect Members to constituents. Members also said they are worried that if lines to the CVC get too long, visitors might be stuck outside in bad weather.
Although security concerns are important, constituent needs must be taken into account, Wasserman Schultz said.
“People already are passing out in the heat,” she said. “I don’t want to minimize it, but we can’t turn the Capitol into a bunker.”
Subcommittee ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who has himself given more than 1,700 tours since coming to Congress in 1995, said there are benefits to having visitors enter the Capitol through the CVC. For one, they will only need to go through security one time, rather than the three times required under current operating procedures.
Members involved in CVC planning might need to do outreach to others on Capitol Hill to remind them of the safety and other benefits the CVC will bring, Wamp said.
“We’ve spent at least $100 million on the CVC on security since we started,” Wamp noted. “And I don’t want to blow that money.”
The issue doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon, however.
Wasserman Schultz — a co-sponsor of a bill introduced last week by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) to keep the current tours — told Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services, to develop alternative tour plans by next month’s oversight hearing.
Following the hearing, Morse said he is optimistic everyone involved in CVC planning will come to an agreement on tour plans soon.
The chief also presented the committee with initial security plans designed to cover three operating scenarios that have been presented, which vary to cover different CVC operating hours and whether staff-led tours continue.
Between 21 and 143 new officers will be needed for the CVC, depending on how late the facility stays open and if the Cannon and Russell tunnels stay open, according to Morse’s written testimony. Costs for officer salaries, overtime and general expenses range from $2.5 million to $15.6 million.