By Jackie Kucinich - 02/16/06 12:00 AM EST
In what has become a constant refrain over the past several years on the progress of Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) construction, once again costs are ballooning and its opening date is under dispute.
This time, the CVC’s price tag has risen to at least $555 million, an increase of about $25 million, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that it would not open to the public until May 2007, putting a more specific date on its previous estimate of spring or summer of that year. The GAO also noted that House and Senate expansion spaces will not be ready until mid-August or early September.
During an anticlimactic hearing, Alan Hantman, the architect of the Capitol (AoC), conceded that the 580,000-square-foot facility would cost more than his office previously estimated but contended it would only be $20.6 million more than previously appropriated, $5 million less than the GAO estimate. Some $528 million has been appropriated for the CVC project already.
AoC estimates have differed from GAO estimates at each of the hearings, which began last summer; however, during nearly every subsequent hearing the deadline has been pushed back and the costs have continued to rise.
GAO representatives Bernard Ungar and Terrell Dorn, the director and assistant director of physical infrastructure issues, respectively, attributed the increase in the estimate this time to the amount of change orders and to delay-related costs. They also increased the estimated cost ceiling to $585 million; the previous estimate had been between $525.6 million and $559 million.
Hantman said the center would begin a “soft opening” in spring 2007, meaning small groups of visitors would be allowed into the facility to give newly trained staff the opportunity to work out possible programs and practice before a large influx of people is allowed into the facility.
This staggered opening will only occur after testing of the complex safety systems, which will take four and a half months to install — six to seven weeks longer than the original AoC estimate. After the systems are ready, the AoC will begin allowing groups of visitors in to give staff a chance to become familiar with the facility and identify problems early.
“Three weeks after [the first tour], we can begin bringing in large groups of people,” Hantman testified to committee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). “The CVC is projected to be available for formal opening in April 2007.”
This opening date will occur well past the end of Hantman’s term as architect, a presidential appointment that has a 10-year term. Hantman was appointed by President Bill Clinton on Jan. 6, 1997 and was confirmed Jan. 30 the same year.
When asked after the hearing whether he planned to ask for an extension, Hantman told The Hill, “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
Hantman testified that “life-safety systems” are one of the largest obstacles still facing the complex. Hantman said the systems would include 5,000 smoke detectors and alarm devices, security systems, a smoke evacuation system, a state-of-the-art public-address and warning system and the integration of all those systems with emergency generators.
He said that the type of extensive security systems that workers have had to install in the CVC is unprecedented.
“The complexity is a result of the sensitivity of the building, the fact that it lies below ground and that it serves as a place of public assembly,” Hantman testified.
His office has managed to catch up on some of the outstanding delays because of an increase in stone delivery, which had been delayed because of a dispute between the Pennsylvania stone supplier and the installer.
“The fabricator has increased the pace of deliveries and is now meeting their original commitment to deliver an average of 2.5 truck loads per week,” Hantman said, “a significant improvement over the total of three truck loads during the entire month of October.”
However, the CVC is still 20 truckloads of stone behind, which amounts to the equivalent of a two-month delay.
The GAO listed several concerns with the project, but Ungar listed three specifically that should be addressed by the AoC and the CVC team first.
“Stone installation, trade stacking and commissioning and testing of the major systems and how they function together” should be a priority, he said.
Trade stacking means employing too many trade professionals at the same time in the same area, which could increase accident rates and cause major construction problems, according to the GAO.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the ranking member on the committee, again inquired about worker safety on the site. In May 2005, David Walker, comptroller of the GAO, testified that the “injury and illness rate was about 50 percent higher for the CVC than for comparable construction sites in 2003.”
He added, “The rate of 2004 was about 30 percent higher than 2003.”
Hantman testified that worker safety had vastly improved through continued monitoring of site conditions.
In addition, the GAO expressed the concern of the current contractor, Manhattan, that the worksite contains too much debris, such as discarded food items or extra pieces of construction material, which could contribute to an unsafe work environment.
“We continue to have more debris then we want to have,” said Bob Hixon, CVC project executive, assuring Allard and the committee that the problem is being monitored.
Durbin admitted that the AoC’s office isn’t the only agency having trouble planning for the opening of the new facility and that lawmakers had yet to determine who would oversee the facility.
“We still haven’t figured out who is going to run this place,” Durbin said. “If we are going to be critical of others, we need to be critical of ourselves.”