Instead of being much-awaited by the public as a boon, the Capitol Visitor Center is beginning to be portrayed in the media as a costly “boondoggle.” The fault lies not with the project itself, but with the failure of the project’s managers and the Architect of the Capitol to keep Congress and the public informed about it in a timely manner.
As Roll Call reports today, members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch learned only from the media last week that a contract for the final phase of the project had been let for $144.3 million, up by 10 percent to 20 percent from previous estimates. Key Members of the House Administration Committee reportedly heard the news the same way. Aides to other Congressional leaders say they are flooded with details about the project, but are not given big-picture information on timetables and budgets.
If information is a problem for Members and staff, it is definitely so for the media. It’s been next to impossible to obtain a usable timetable from project managers or the Architect’s office to use in judging whether the CVC will be completed by its target date, Jan. 20, 2005. News about the $144.3 million contract was sent out in the same manner a corporation with something to hide releases an earnings restatement. A press release dated April 18 (a Friday) arrived on media fax machines on April 20 (a Sunday).
The release resulted in stories that the contract was bigger than expected and that the project as a whole was going to cost more than originally forecast. The New York Times’ headline was “At the Capitol, a Big Dig’s Cost Draws Critics.” The story noted that the original cost of the total project was put at $265 million and that it’s now estimated at $373.5 million. It noted that Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, wrote to Architect Alan Hantman that he was “deeply disturbed at the prospect of pouring more money into this project when expenses are running well above budget.”
The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste declared that “unfortunately for taxpayers, it seems as though the CVC is turning out to be another government boondoggle.” A forthcoming NBC News story on the project may well have the same tone.
In fact, the CVC is no boondoggle. It will provide added security for the Capitol. It will educate citizens about the legislative branch and keep them out of the weather while they wait to tour the Capitol. Even the CVC’s costs can be justified by rising construction costs in Washington and add-ons to the original design. What’s missing is timely, accurate, dependable communication.