Finally, a Fixed Date for the CVC

After Years of Delay, Officials Say the CVC Will Definitely Open Dec. 2

Posted July 11, 2008 at 6:34pm

To many, the Capitol Visitor Center has become a symbol of government bureaucracy and overspending, an ode to Congress’ inability to do anything without a score of hearings and a truckload of cash.

Since workers broke ground eight years ago, the CVC has had a slew of problems and changes, from the design to the security of the underground building.

And with those issues came an ever-changing price tag, finally swelling to $621 million — more than twice the original estimate. It was supposed to be open years ago, and with each new “completion date” came a new round of cynicism and doubt.

But Thursday, Members celebrated the potential end to the jokes with the announcement that the CVC would open in less than five months, on Dec. 2.

It’s the first time Congressional leaders have announced a solid opening date rather than a completion estimate. And this time, those familiar with the project’s ups and downs seem confident that this is it.

“I think in the end we have a project that I hope resembles a real tasty stew,” said Steve Wymer, spokesman for Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who held 15 oversight hearings on the CVC in the 109th Congress. “Not real fun to watch but tastes good.”

In the past year, many of the major problems that once encircled the CVC have all but disappeared.

By August 2007, 97 percent of construction was complete, leaving fire- and life-safety tests as the only major hurdle before the CVC’s completion. And in September, officials from the Government Accountability Office and the Architect of the Capitol finally reached agreement on when the project would be completed, November 2008 — an estimate that still stands today.

On July 21, CVC officials expect to get a certificate of occupancy from the D.C. fire marshal, which means the building is safe to open to the public. Then officials will focus on the finishing details, including the training and hiring of staff and the finalization of security plans.

A few months later — if all goes according to plan — visitors will enter the biggest expansion of the Capitol ever, an underground building that has a larger footprint than the original structure.

“We don’t see any land mines out there,” said Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has aggressively overseen the CVC’s progress as chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

But there’s still work to be done. Congress must pass a bill that establishes the operation and administration of the CVC, and officials have to complete a long “punch list” of construction details.

Most importantly, officials are still unsure how visitors will get to the CVC entrance. Right now, tour buses can’t pull up that close to the Capitol because of security concerns, and money hasn’t been appropriated for any other transportation plan.

At a recent oversight hearing, both Democratic and Republican Members called proposed plans “patchwork” and unrealistic. They predicted “chaos” and a “meltdown” if the Capitol Police and CVC officials didn’t devise some way for visitors to be dropped off at the door. Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse will submit a report July 21 outlining some possibilities for pre-screening buses.

Wymer called the issue “a drop in the bucket” compared with the CVC’s past problems, which included changing designs, labor relations issues and construction delays.

Over the years, the Architect of the Capitol — who is responsible for the construction of the building — was constantly criticized for slow work and unrealistic budgets. Then came questions of how to secure the extra space, one of the reasons behind the upcoming merger of the Capitol Police and the Library of Congress police force.

“If you look at it in perspective of the scope of this project, that’s an issue that will absolutely get resolved,” Wymer predicted. “It’s the type of thing where there will be significant support” from Members to fix it.

Already, Republican and Democratic Members are working together to solve another hurdle before the opening: funding.

When open, the CVC will need the money to pay staff to help guide visitors, run the gift shops and man the equipment. But that becomes a problem if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill before Dec. 2, a likely possibility. With President Bush leaving office, Congressional leaders are likely to wait until there is a new president.

Terrie Rouse, the CVC chief executive officer for visitor services, recently assured Members that the CVC would be able to open under a CR, but that it would be woefully understaffed.

“We only have one chance to make a first impression once we open the Visitor Center,” she told Members at an oversight hearing last week. “I want to make sure that everyone’s first impression of the Capitol Visitor Center is first-rate.”

But Beeton said that Congressional leadership has given assurances that the CVC will be funded and that “we believe we’ll be able to staff the CVC even with a CR.”

Those who have worked closely on the CVC expressed confidence that the opening would impress visitors and that thoughts of the center’s problematic past would fade.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who was ranking member of the legislative branch subcommittee until February, said the CVC is the result of “meeting after meeting after meeting” of looking over the budget and detailing all the problems.

“While it was a long painful struggle — frankly because it went way over budget and took too long to build — it is a quality end project,” he said. “Even at $621 million, the closeout of the CVC is a success, even though the middle part of construction a couple of years ago was sloppy.”