The Architect of the Capitol could have done more to avoid creating unrealistic expectations during the course of the Capitol Visitor Center’s construction, the agency’s new project executive said in one of the more candid project oversight hearings that have taken place over the past two years. [IMGCAP(1)]
Specifically, the additions that were made to the CVC following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, combined with former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman’s refusal to admit those changes would have drastic impacts on the CVC’s fragile schedule, caused a great deal of frustration among Members, Bernie Ungar said at a hearing before a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Friday.
Ungar joined the AOC late last month after studying CVC issues for the Government Accountability Office for more than a decade, and one of his last jobs at that agency was to help put together a late-2006 joint AOC/GAO “lessons learned” report on the CVC project. That report has yet to be released to the public because the AOC has cited specific procurement and security components. But Ungar’s testimony gave some insight into the contents of that report.
When Congress ceremonially broke ground on the CVC in the summer of 2000, the facility was expected to be completed in time for the January 2005 presidential inauguration. But following the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress made major changes to the original plan and added more than $170 million in additional construction requirements, including $38.5 million for security enhancements and $85 million to build out 170,000 square feet of space that originally was to be left unfinished.
“One of the biggest lessons learned [was that] everyone should have stood up [when the additional work was added] and said, ‘We’d be happy to make these changes but we can’t do it in the January 2005 time frame.’”
Instead, once that target date passed, completion slippages were announced every few months at CVC progress hearings and the project quickly earned a poor reputation as Members expected the next schedule slippage to be only a matter of time. From June 2005 to November 2006, the AOC announced five different expected opening dates for the new facility.
And since Stephen Ayers took over the AOC when Hantman’s term expired in February 2007, two more delays have been announced.
But Ayers, who has said the CVC is his “top priority,” noted last week that the latest schedule changes were made in an effort to be more realistic and upfront with Members as he works to bring the CVC in for a landing.
“One of my first actions as acting Architect was to direct the project team to re- evaluate the project schedule to ensure that it was realistic and to include the two major risks and uncertainties that were not built into the schedule” Ayers said last week. “By April, the project team … had updated the master project schedule to incorporate these specific risks and contingencies, particularly with regard to the time needed to integrate the fire alarm, life-safety, and security systems with the building systems.”
Ayers noted that in the three months since the schedule reassessment occurred in April, the project has met its “critical path” schedule milestones at a rate that has not been exceeded in the history of the project.
Ungar has called the current schedule, which has the doors of the CVC opening in late September 2008, an “uphill battle” but also an achievable goal.
And with an estimated $4.5 million being spent on the project every month, Members have promised to continue to keep a close eye on the historically slippery schedule.
In other CVC news, the AOC announced last week that a contract was awarded to the New York-based Restaurant Associates to run the 550-seat cafeteria that will be a main feature of the center. The AOC had been prepared to award the contract to Restaurant Associates in February, but after the Philadelphia-based company ARAMARK filed a complaint with the GAO for “matters related to evaluation of the offerors’ proposed commission rates,” the AOC spent three months reviewing the award before going with Restaurant Associates.
Also, Ayers announced last week that the AOC has begun interviewing candidates to serve as the CVC’s new chief executive officer of visitor services. The position, created in a management plan developed by Congressional leaders in April, will oversee all operational components of the CVC, including the Capitol Guide Service, once the facility opens.
Ayers said he plans to have the position filled by the fall.