CVC Bids High

Posted March 7, 2003 at 6:02pm

The question has loomed since the Capitol Visitor Center project began: Will it be finished on time and on budget?

The answer, at least to the latter, seems to be no.

Appropriators on both sides of the Capitol said last week that they have received word that the bids for the second and final phase of the project have come in significantly higher than the Architect of the Capitol had anticipated.

“I understand we’re going to get a new report soon,” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) said. “The rumors are they are going to ask for a lot more money.”

How much is still unclear, but what’s almost certain is that the $374 million, 580,000-square-foot subterranean center will need a supplemental appropriation.

“It is true that the bids did not come in as estimated,” House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said. “But it is not unusual for a multiyear capital project. There are no quantifiable dollar amounts associated with the estimates.”

The first “sequence” of the project came with a price tag just under $100 million, and the Architect of the Capitol hoped the pricing proposals for the second sequence would come in around $120 million.

The first sequence work primarily includes excavation, construction of the exterior walls and building a new service tunnel. The second phase consists of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, completion of the East Front Plaza and buildout of the interior spaces.

Because the procurement process to chose the second general contractor is still under way, CVC officials won’t release the names of the construction companies competing for the contract or what price was attached to the proposals turned in two weeks ago. A contract is scheduled to be awarded later this month.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, confirmed that the figures submitted were higher than anticipated.

“The bid was coming in for the second phase, and the fear [was] that it was going to be high and it was,” he said, adding that he is opposed to appropriating more money for the project. “There’s a lot of things that are going to [cause it] to need more money, but with a war, any [available] money should go to homeland security.”

As a way of overcoming shortfalls, Kingston suggested eliminating the auditorium slated for a large portion of the space within the CVC.

“This town needs another theater like it needs one more lobbyist. We don’t hardly use the chamber” that we have, Kingston said.

But Scofield said the visitor center itself is a matter of homeland security.

“The visitors center is a priority of the Speaker and the Congress,” he added. “We’ll work through all the kinks to make sure it goes as smooth as possible.”

The original budget for the project was $265 million, but after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, $38.5 million was put in the emergency supplemental appropriations bill for security enhancements to the facility. Then in the fiscal 2002 legislative branch appropriation, $70 million was added to expand the scope of the project to include finishing the “shell” space allocated for the House and Senate on each side of the visitor center.

Because of procurement sensitivity, CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said that he couldn’t specify if or by how much the pricing proposals for sequence two exceeded what was anticipated by the source selection evaluation board. Nor could he specify who comprises the board, saying only that members were experienced in contracts of this scope. The General Services Administration assists the AOC with contractor selection.

Fontana did lay out hypothetically what would happen if the bids were higher than expected.

“If this is the case, the source selection evaluation board reviews the proposals, and if the bids prove to be valid and reasonable [usually the case if a bid is within 10 percent to 15 percent of the government estimate], the board makes an award recommendation to the Architect of the Capitol,” he said.

If the Architect concurs with the recommendation, he will bring it to the Capitol Preservation Commission, Fontana explained. The CPC is made up of members of the House and Senate leadership and chairmen and ranking members of relevant oversight and appropriations committees.

Asked how much unobligated funds are left in the total CVC budget, Fontana said he didn’t have that information. Beyond paying the two general contractors, the budget also has to cover tree preservation, the project management company, some utility work and general overhead for the project, among other miscellaneous expenses.

Word of the need for a possible infusion of additional funds hadn’t traveled far out of appropriations circles as of last week. Many Members of the CPC hadn’t yet received the news.

“It may need some slight supplemental adjustments, but that’s common in a project of this magnitude,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who is on the CPC. “There’s been some problems, like any project; we had some snags on utility work,” he said, referring to the 70-plus-year-old utilities that had to be replaced.

He was emphatic about one point. “You want to do it right. This project will transcend generations. You don’t want it to turn out like the West Front extension,” he said, referring to the 1980s project that expanded the portion of the Capitol facing the Mall. “Some of the construction is more [appropriate] to a strip mall than the nation’s Capitol” in that area, he said, citing cheap tiles and other corners that were cut because of budget constraints.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), another CPC member, said he’s been pleased with the oversight thus far. He also pointed out that the CPC has many first-time Members because of leadership changes. The group had its first organizational meeting a couple of weeks ago, he said, expressing confidence in its management of the projects “once the committee is up and running.”

“I have been happy,” he said. “The oversight is tricky” because of the number of players involved, he added.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), however, wasn’t so sure. Wamp followed the project as a member of the Appropriations Committee, where up until this Congress he served on the subcommittee on the legislative branch.

“I told [AOC] Alan Hantman last year I thought his career and lifelong reputation hangs on this,” Wamp said.

“You’ve got to hold these guys more accountable. The AOC has not been as responsible as they should be on these projects,” he said, mentioning the Botanic Garden project as an example of “bad procurement” and cost overruns. “This business of already asking for more money is not acceptable.”