Lovely vision, unlovely price: CVC cost rises as opening day recedes

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee will meet this morning and, for the fifth time, discuss the status of the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), a hearing that will mostly likely see the cost of the project rise further.

The CVC price tag has risen constantly and, although several major milestones have been passed, the completion date keeps slipping further into the future.

Earlier this year, subcommittee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) began monthly oversight meetings to try to end the cost escalation and delays. 

Each hearing has included Architect of the Capitol (AoC) Alan Hantman and representatives of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has closely monitored the CVC’s progress.

Since taking over as chairman, Allard has sought to control a project that had been constantly criticized for financial mismanagement and slack deadlines.

“I intend to monitor the progress of this critical project closely to ensure the architect is doing all in his power to finish this project in a timely and cost-effective fashion,” Allard said at the first hearing. on May 17.

Although the AoC had met a major milestone by ensuring that the East Front plaza was finished for the 2005 inauguration, the project was still tardy, Allard noted.

“It is at least 20 months behind the original schedule and many dollars over the 2002 budget, which included new security requirements and the expansion space,” the senator said.

At the second meeting, on June 14, as deadlines slipped again, the GAO recommended the architect develop a comprehensive schedule and risk-mitigation plan. Three of the 11 “significant milestones scheduled for completion” by that date had actually been finished.

Hantman testified that the delay was because of a change in the “critical path” for the project in April and May. “The [milestones] related to the utility tunnel — we have a real issue there that we’ve been trying to work through that’s delayed us for a number of weeks.”

Hantman explained that problems with stone supplies for the Great Hall had caused the schedule to slip, adding, “We continue to look for ways to recover [from what] we’ve been trying to work through that’s delayed us for a number of weeks.”

Hantman tried to reassure Allard that the project would be completed by Sept. 15, 2006. GAO Director of Physical Infrastructure Bernard Ungar testified that this was overly optimistic, saying, “We continue to believe at this point that the project is more likely to be substantially completed in [a] December 2006 to March 2007 timeframe as opposed to [the] September 2006 schedule that currently exists.”

By July, the GAO deemed it even less likely that the AoC would meet the target opening date. Allard told the panel that only three of 17 milestones had been met on time during one two-month period.

He added, “I understand the contractor’s schedule is showing a completion date of Oct. 19, 2006, not Sept. 15, as we were informed last month.”

Ungar said some delays were beyond the AoC’s control and that management of the project had vastly improved since the June hearing.

For the second time, Ungar and the GAO urged the AoC to put together an integrated schedule for construction and operations. “We believe it’s very important and getting more important as the months go by, and something that really needs to be done,” he said.

Ungar also informed the committee that for the AoC to meet the Sept. 15 deadline, additional funding would be needed.

Although the GAO said the cost for the visitor center would rise to $42 million, the AoC requested $36.9 million for 2006. Hantman testified that the amount was adequate.

By the time the panel met again Sept. 15, the Hantman had backed off from his September 2006 deadline, saying, “For planning purposes, a December 2006 date would be prudent to aim for to have full building operations tested and ready.”

At the same hearing, meanwhile, the GAO moved its expected completion date back to the spring or summer of 2007.

“AoC’s more aggressive schedule management is identifying significant omissions of activities and time from the [schedule],” the GAO reported. “AoC’s approach, though very positive, is coming relatively late in the project.”

Allard noted that, despite the urgings of the panel and GAO, the AoC had not finished a risk-mitigation plan.

“While all of us look forward with great anticipation to the opening, the project is only 64 percent complete, according to the AoC’s last monthly report,” Allard said. “Progress is slower than expected, illustrated by the fact that only seven of the 16 selected milestones scheduled for completion by [Sept. 15] have actually been completed and none were on time.”

The price tag of the Capitol Visitor Center has been rising steadily since the 1990s. Originally, it was a $71 million project, but its scope has evolved and the price has soared — to $125 million by 1995, to $265 million by 2000, and to $373.5 million after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which made greater security necessary.

“The greatest impact [on] the scope and complexity [of the project] has been security-related,” said Mike McQueen, CVC project manager and vice president of consultant architect RTKL Associates. “This project began pre-9-11 and, as such, was designed in a very different climate.”

RTKL also has assisted with telecommunications and audio-visual design for the CVC.

In June 2004, Hantman testified that the project would not require any more funding, which, at the time was $420 million.

The project is now projected to cost $517.9 million, according to Fontana; however, the AoC has not updated the cost estimates since Hantman conceded that completion of the facility was delayed again and would likely not happen until December 2006. Recent GAO reports have estimated the cost of the 580,000-square-foot center will range from $522 million to $559 million.

Tom Fontana, CVC spokesman, told The Hill in May that the project has gone through so many changes that it is impossible to compare the CVC of 1995 with the one now under scrutiny. Early versions had no auditorium and no tunnels to the Library of Congress and under the north side of the Capitol grounds. Nor did they have expansion space for the Senate and House, which alone cost $70 million.

When visitors enter the massive facility from the tree-lined south entrance, they must pass through a secure foyer, 300 feet from the Capitol, where Capitol Police will screen them.

Visitors enter above the Great Hall, the largest part of the three-level facility, designed to mirror the sandstone-lined, stately interior of the Capitol.

Fontana said the AoC has recommended moving 16 statues from the collection in the Capitol to line the 20,000-square-foot space, nearly three times the square footage of the Capitol Rotunda, which occupies 7,200 square feet.

Two large skylights, through which visitors below can see the Capitol Dome, fill the vast space with natural light. The skylights are scheduled to be installed in November, Hantman testified last month. Two massive staircases, bordered by pools of moving water, take visitors down to a lower level.

CVC officials expect that the cast of the Statue of Freedom will be brought up from the Russell Senate Office Building’s cellar rotunda to stand in the Great Hall, but they have not yet received final approval.

At the center of the hall will be a 16,500-square-foot gallery that will display historical items and interactive materials such as women’s suffrage documents, a copy of the 13th Amendment and other important artifacts from the Library of Congress to teach visitors about the development of representative democracy and the building of the Capitol. The gallery will also feature a model of the Capitol Dome.

Fontana said the gallery will focus primarily on the Capitol and the Congress and is “not an American-history museum.” The CVC will also include a 600-person cafeteria.

Two 250-seat orientation theaters with stadium seating will show visitors a 12-minute film about the Capitol and the Congress. The film will replay on a loop, allowing 1,500 people to see it during six showings each hour. Visitors will enter at the base of the theater and exit through the top. Elevators within the theaters will help people with disabilities move from the orientation area to the next level. The entire CVC complex is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the AoC says.

A congressional auditorium on the easternmost part of the CVC will serve as an alternative voting chamber as well as a place for members of Congress to make presentations to large groups of people. This area will not be open to the public but could be made available by invitation only.

The center has faced many challenges; however, structurally, the utility tunnel has been one of the largest challenges. Work is due to be completed on the structure by March 2006. The GAO identified the tunnel as a project schedule and cost risk because of the “possible unforeseen conditions associated with underground work.”

McQueen said balancing accessibility and security implementation have also presented a challenge to the project.

“While security cannot be compromised and we have to anticipate its changing threat, the world’s symbol of democracy must maintain its feeling of openness and accessibility,” he said.