Allard wants closer oversight as CVC cost has increased

A key Senate appropriator will hear testimony today about the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) amid signs that lawmakers are frustrated by the management and ever-rising costs of the project.

 “At this point, [the CVC] needs closer congressional oversight,” said Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), chairman of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee.

De Rocha said Allard indicated that he wanted to hold hearings on the CVC more often, “perhaps monthly.”

Costs associated with the CVC have been rising steadily since the 1990s, when it was introduced as an approximately $71 million project.

The price tag increased as the plans for the CVC have changed. In 1995, the cost was estimated at $125 million, and it rose to $265 million in 2000.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress appropriated additional money for security costs and congressional expansion space, bringing the project to $373.5 million.

Alan Hantman, the architect of the Capitol, told the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee last year that the project would not require any more funding; the cost for the 580,000-square-foot center stands at $421 million.

CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said the project has gone through so many changes that it is impossible to compare the CVC of 1995 to the one currently under scrutiny.

Early versions of the project had no auditorium, no tunnels to the Library of Congress or under the north side of the Capitol grounds, and no Senate or House expansion space. The expansion space alone has cost $70 million.

Fontana added that the characterization of the CVC as a “runaway project” is unfair because of the changes and extensions. “We are not talking about the same project,” he said. “We have had nearly two dozen design changes that have had a ripple effect.”

Fontana said the increased oversight by the Senate could help members of both chambers better understand the project and its costs. He said key CVC officials have met with the Capitol Preservation Commission on Mondays to keep members informed of the center’s progress and challenges.

The commission is composed of House and Senate leadership as well as several other members of Congress.

“The goal is that no one will be taken by surprise and [that the CVC can] minimize the anonymous information that’s out there,” Fontana said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated in a recent report that the cost of the CVC could total $515 million. During a House Appropriations Committee hearing May 3, Hantman testified that the cost of the CVC would not rise above $517 million.

“I think we can do it for the $517 million or less that they are projecting right now,” Hantman said.

Later in the same hearing, Hantman said that 77 percent of the cost increases were out of his office’s control because the project has undergone several design changes and security upgrades. His office has requested $36.9 million for fiscal year 2006 to complete construction on the complex.                               

Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said, “While we are going to keep a close eye on the CVC, we have no plans to ask for monthly hearings.”

Also testifying at today’s hearing will be David Walker, comptroller of the GAO.

“The GAO is monitoring [the CVC] on a constant basis,” said Laura Kopelson, a spokeswoman for the GAO.

 The center has also suffered from a string of delays, pushing its opening date from December 2005 back to its current fall 2006 date. The GAO estimated the visitors center would open in March 2007.