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Seniors, Disabled Still Have Trouble Accessing the CVC

Seven months after the Capitol Visitor Center opened its doors, officials still don’t have a permanent plan for getting senior citizens and disabled visitors to the building’s entrance.

House appropriators asked CVC officials to develop options at an oversight hearing Thursday morning that addressed how the new building has fared since its Dec. 2 opening.

Members were mostly positive about the CVC, but they also brought up several concerns about staff-led tours, still-unfinished construction and long lines in the tunnels.

Central to their criticism, however, was the current system for getting visitors to the CVC’s main entrance.

The Capitol Police prohibit tour buses from dropping visitors off in front of the CVC on First Street Northeast because of security precautions. Buses instead have to drop off and pick up their passengers on the opposite side of the Capitol — which requires a half-mile uphill walk to the CVC entrance.

For those who can’t make the walk, the CVC runs two specially designed golf carts. Two more carts are available if needed, and tour buses can call ahead if they have a large group of seniors or disabled visitors, a CVC spokeswoman said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — who heads the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — said the system is mostly adequate.

“But,— she added, “this is clearly a problem that needs to be evaluated. There’s definitely some adjustments that need to be looked at.—

In recent months, tour guides have complained of disappearing carts and disorganization. Horror stories abound: groups of senior citizens using walkers to get up the hill, trips and falls, and missed tours.

In a letter to Wasserman Schultz on June 17, the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, DC called the issue a “glaring problem.—

“The shuttle cart service is helpful for someone with a bad knee, a person on crutches, or someone confined to a wheelchair,— President Shirley Timashev wrote. “It is totally inadequate for ferrying groups of 40 to 55 senior citizens to the CVC entrance.—

“What was once called Jenkins Hill’ and is now known as Capitol Hill’ may one day be called Heart Attack Hill,’— she added.

Carl Saperstein, a professional tour guide and Guild representative, said Thursday that senior groups now avoid the Capitol because of the hassle it presents.

In an e-mail, one tour guide recounted to him a trip to the CVC in April, when a group of World War II veterans were forced to make the walk after a cart picked up five of them and then promptly disappeared.

“We’re going to have a death someday,— he said. “It’s going to take a horror story — a real horror story — for them to take action.—

CVC officials, however, contend that the system works for most visitors. About 1 percent of those who visit the CVC use the carts, said Terrie Rouse, CEO for visitor services.

“There is a need,— Rouse said. “It’s just a small need.—

The CVC and Capitol Police have until August 24 to hand the Appropriations subcommittee a report with options for improving the shuttle service. One option is replacing the carts — which carry about five people apiece — with a mini-bus that carries about 30 people.

Rouse said she will work with the Capitol Police to come up with a solution. But she also placed the burden on the police department, which developed the security plans that prohibit tour buses from driving near the CVC.

Thursday’s hearing also left Rouse with other issues to address, mostly related to tours of the Capitol, such as the status of staff-led tours.

Since the CVC opened, some Members have complained that the new tour system has impeded their favorite constituent service. To give tours, staffers have to go through hours of training, compete with professional tours for a time slot and stick to a pre-determined route.

CVC officials have since made several changes to ease Members’ fears, including adding extra time slots specifically for staff-led tours. The fiscal 2010 legislative branch appropriations bill also includes language prohibiting the Architect of the Capitol from using funds to restrict staff-led tours.

Members have also told CVC officials to not restrict the routes of such tours, as they do with professionally guided tours.

After Thursday’s hearing, Rouse confirmed that staffers aren’t technically restricted. But she also said that in training, CVC officials “strongly recommend— that staffers use the approved route.

“The more people on the same route, the less confusion there is,— she said.