CVC Isn’t One Man’s Ordeal

Posted January 23, 2007 at 6:49pm

When historians write about the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, they will either give credit to or cast blame on Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman. After all, Hantman certainly has been the driving force behind the largest addition in the history of the Capitol since being selected for his post in 1997.

But the CVC was an idea that predates Hantman’s tenure by several decades, and when he leaves in February after turning in a “lessons learned” report, he will do so about a year shy of the CVC’s projected opening date.

While it is unknown who will oversee the final months of construction (the selection of a new Architect is behind schedule), the early proponents are well-known on Capitol Hill.

Outside the Architect’s office, several individual Members of Congress have left their marks on the story of the CVC, whether by paving the way for approval of the underground visitor center or by holding oversight hearings during construction.

And as the behind-schedule CVC moves into its final phase of construction with a price tag well above what originally was estimated, some of those Members have come up with their own lists of lessons learned.

A Justified Expense

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who was one of the first Members to craft legislation to authorize a Congressional visitor center and is as much an institutional memory today as there can be on the project, said he still gets furious when Members criticize the project as a “boondoggle” and newspapers refer to it as Congress’ version of the Big Dig.

“Most of them have been in government too long and don’t understand that much about the private sector and development projects,” said Mica, a real estate developer in Florida before he came to Congress who believes the CVC’s scope and cost expansions have been justified.

Since 1991, when a preliminary design for a Congressional visitor facility first was approved by Senate officials, the goal of the CVC has been the same: to improve Capitol security while simultaneously providing visitors with better opportunities for taking tours and learning the history of Congress.

But 15 years ago, in a pre-Sept. 11, 2001, world, the new visitor facility was expected to be a 446,000-square-foot structure that would cost less than $100 million and take no more than five years to build.

Congress has done much to expand the scope of that original plan, wrapping at least three separate major projects into what is now called the Capitol Visitor Center.

When complete, the CVC will include not only museum space, gift shops and a food court for tourists, but also 170,000 square feet of fully furnished work space for the House and Senate, a new truck delivery tunnel for the Capitol complex and even a connecting tunnel to the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. That’s not to mention the massive new security and fire systems that were added to the complex in the wake of the 2001 terrorist and anthrax attacks.

Today, the 580,000-square-foot CVC that broke ground in June 2000 is pushing seven years of construction at a cost of almost $600 million.

“We made some strategic decisions,” Mica said. “First of all you don’t tear up the front of the Capitol and go down 78 feet and excavate that often, so one of the things I pushed for was expansion of the size of the project from what the Democrats had proposed and what I had proposed before.”

That expansion included things like building additional unfinished “shell” space for the House and Senate and later, after ground had been broken, deciding to go ahead and finish those spaces with this project rather than having to go back and do it at a later date.

“The other thing that I’ve insisted on and done everything I can do is not to do this project on the cheap,” Mica said. “We will have the finest finishing material available that matches what we have in the United States Capitol building. … It’s going to be something that generations can be proud of in terms of architecture and compatibility with the current Capitol.”

Spread the Blame …
It’s a sad error on Congress’ part that Hantman has become a whipping boy of House and Senate appropriators, according to Mica, who claims they really don’t understand what is being built just below their feet.

“Have there been cost increases on this project? Yes,” Mica said. “But you have to look at each of them. Have there been delays in the project? Yes. But you have to look at the fact that we aren’t opening two-thirds of the project — we’re finishing the whole project, and we are saving money by doing that.”

If there’s any blame that needs to be handed out on this project, Mica said, Congress should first look at itself.

“You have a Senate and House side who sometimes can’t agree to the time of day, let alone the size and scope of a project of this magnitude,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t know what the hell they are talking about.”

“The blame, if you want to cast blame, is spread pretty widely,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the 1980s and early ’90s and also was one of the early supporters of building a new facility for visitors.

Fazio agreed with Mica in that some of the blame for project delays and cost overruns is the result of the jurisdictional maze that has surrounded the CVC from the beginning.

In theory, the 18-member bipartisan, bicameral Capitol Preservation Commission — on which Mica served under Rep. Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) term as Speaker — is supposed to be the continuing body that oversees the AOC’s management of the CVC.

But any continuity of leadership is tough to maintain when the Architect will have changed twice by the time the CVC opens and party control of both the House and Senate also has switched more than once since the CVC originally was designed. Each Congressional changeover brings new leadership and a new set of committee chairmen who have demonstrated varying amounts of enthusiasm for ensuring oversight of the project.

“There has been a lack of continuity in Congressional oversight,” Fazio said. “Any time you have a changing cast of characters providing what a limited amount of oversight there is, you’ve got some issues.”

… But Hantman Still Deserves Some
But Fazio is less willing to let Hantman off the hook for a project that as late as 2003 was supposed to be ready by the 2005 presidential inauguration ceremony.

“When you talk about increasing scope and fleshing out the furnishing of the building that’s directly Congress’ responsibility, they are the ones who decided they wanted more from this project,” Fazio said. But, in the end, “clearly it’s cost more than it should have cost. … I think the responsibility has to be essentially laid at the feet of the Architect of the Capitol and the contractor and his subcontractors.”

During the 108th Congress Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) served as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch and took more than a passing interest in fighting the CVC’s cost overruns and delays before the Republican leadership reorganized the panel and abolished his subcommittee seat.

In a recent interview he said that as the project manager, he would like to see the next AOC show more of a backbone than Hantman did in standing up for the CVC against tinkering by Congressional leadership.

“What they need is the Architect has got to sign off that this is my job and I am going to make sure it is completed as outlined and if someone comes to me mid-term and says, ‘I want to change this,’ I’m going to tell them no,” Kingston said. “And if I can’t bring this in, then you need to fire me. They have to have some strong conviction of urgency.”

Kingston said he still gets angry at the money Congress set aside early on in the project to bring in special contractors to ensure that the more than 300 historic trees on the East Capitol grounds were protected, pruned, mulched and monitored during the construction.

“The Architect spent tons of money and time trying to protect and preserve these trees,” Kingston said. “Either you want the visitor center and you’re going to lose the tree or you want the tree and you’re going to lose the visitor center.”

Then there was the half-million dollars spent on noise-reducing upgrades for the East Front windows.

“There was the soundproofing that went on the Capitol on the East Front so that when the workmen were out there using jackhammers it wouldn’t disturb people in politics who apparently have to have a very quiet atmosphere to get their thinking done. … Only Congress would indulge in such silliness.”

Kingston said he doesn’t believe individual Members have taken their role as overseers seriously enough throughout this endeavor.

“The problem is, I think it has needed more scrutiny,” Kingston said. “A lot of this was staff driven. I think Members are more focused on health care, and the military, the war, terrorism, education, things like that, so this was kind of turned over to a number of staffers who I just don’t think dogged it enough. Nobody would have ever dreamed that this thing would have turned bad so quickly.”

Kingston said that even early on in the project there were “too many people who supported it and did not want to do the due diligence of watching it” and keeping the AOC from wasting government dollars.

When Kingston’s subcommittee began holding its own hearings on the CVC, “we really got to be the SOB at the party,” he said. However, “I think all of our questioning and vigorous oversight, I think it did slow down some of the bleeding.”

But as the light begins to grow brighter at the end of the tunnel for the long-awaited visitor center, Fazio said all the bumps in the road throughout this process shouldn’t take away from the facility that now is finally coming together beneath the East Front of the Capitol.

“Let’s not let it detract from the actual benefit of the actual building, which I think will be extremely popular with all parties concerned,” Fazio said.

Despite all the “what ifs” throughout the design, management and construction process, “I think it will be perceived in general as a very positive step forward,” he said. After decades of planning and waiting, “I think now we ought to enjoy what we have wrought, and hopefully other generations down the road will do so as well.”