$50M Set Aside for Tunnels

Posted March 13, 2007 at 6:49pm

When House appropriators sit down Thursday to mark up the already controversial supplemental war spending bill, they also will be asked to fund an ongoing emergency happening right beneath their own feet.

At the request of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, the supplemental bill that will be introduced includes a provision to grant the Architect of the Capitol $50 million for asbestos abatement and other improvements in the five miles of underground utility tunnels that deliver steam and chilled water to the Capitol complex.

“We’re talking about life and death here,” Wasserman Schultz said of the conditions facing the AOC’s “tunnel shop” team, whose job it is to work in the system and keep the Capitol’s heating and cooling systems running.

Wasserman Schultz’s funding request comes after a provision in the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution boosted AOC funding for the Capitol Power Plant — which runs the tunnel system — by $14.5 million and a provision in the 2006 supplemental gave the Architect’s office some $27.6 million to begin major overhauls to the system.

The focus on providing new funding for the tunnels stems from a February 2006 complaint filed by the Office of Compliance against the AOC noting numerous Occupational Health and Safety Act violations dating back to 2000, including crumbling walls and a lack of egress points.

Since then — and after the tunnel shop team filed a retaliation complaint with the OOC against the AOC — Members of both the House and Senate hammered then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman for allowing conditions in the utility tunnels to deteriorate.

At a recent Senate subcommittee hearing on the impact of asbestos, tunnel shop Supervisor John Thayer told Members that the health of his entire team has been, and continues to be, affected by unsafe working conditions that have not improved in their workspace just beneath the surface of Capitol Hill.

At a House subcommittee on the legislative branch hearing last month on the AOC’s long-term project plans, acting Architect Stephen Ayers admitted that “a lack of attention” was to blame for the problems in the tunnels and estimated that his agency was prepared to obligate $30 million to $50 million to fix the system if granted the funds and that the total price tag of the tunnels probably would be more than $100 million.

“I almost put in the whole $125 million but really thought that would be too much at once,” Wasserman Schultz said of the supplemental request Tuesday. “I just wanted to make sure that we got this problem addressed. I think it’s unconscionable that the Architect of the Capitol ignored these tunnel workers in their plight for seven years.”

Wasserman Schultz noted that she still plans to hold a separate hearing on the tunnel issues in which she expects both the workers and Hantman to testify.

“But I at least want to try to get this project expedited so that these worker safety issues are addressed as quickly as possible,” she said.

Her panel’s ranking member, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), pointed out that the supplemental surely is going to be controversial with the numerous items being added. But, he said, the money for the tunnel system is an item he supports.

“There’s going to be some criticism of all the add-ons to this bill that are not war related, but you can certainly argue that these tunnels are an emergency issue and the money needs to flow. I want to make sure [the AOC] can obligate the money in a timely manner because we’re going to defend part of [the supplemental] and oppose part of it.”

For his part, Thayer said he’s glad Congress is attempting to appropriate new funds to fix the tunnels, but he said $50 million would be only a drop in the bucket.

“I still stand by my figure from a year ago that it’s going to cost between $300 [million] and $500 million and take 15 years to fix the system,” Thayer said. And in the meantime, “the life-safety has decreased, not increased. It’s actually becoming dramatically worse down there.”

Thayer said he has little confidence in the AOC’s ability to quickly fix the tunnel system considering how the last emergency supplemental was handled.

“They couldn’t even handle the $27 million,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for someone from Congress to sit down with me to show them how they wasted that money. There’s not a single company on that $27 million that can say right now, ‘We’re starting work on Monday.’ … It’s costing them $12 million to fix a 600-foot section of tunnel roof replacement and I’ve got 20,000-plus feet of tunnels that need to be repaired.”

Thayer said the ongoing tunnel problems give him “every reason to believe the [now $550 million-plus] CVC will look cheap in comparison.”

On the Senate side, Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Ayers’ office last week expressing her concern with the AOC’s progress on fixing the tunnels and stressing that worker health and safety “must be the utmost concern to the AOC.”

Rules Staff Director Howard Gantman said Tuesday that “the letter is asking the AOC to really detail what they are doing with the current money they’ve got. I think there is an intent to make sure these repairs happen as soon as possible and in the best way possible.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the chairwoman of her chamber’s Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said that new money would be requested in the Senate version of the supplemental for the tunnel system and that her boss currently is reviewing the amount.

Also included in the supplemental legislation that will be introduced in the House is a provision to provide $16 million “for bollards, blast protection and other security improvements,” which would be earmarked for the old Food and Drug Administration building, which sits across the street from the Ford House Office Building. Congress and the AOC are contemplating alleviating the space crunch on the House side by assuming control of about 200,000 square feet of the former FDA building for space for committee staff.