Members Query Transport Plans for CVC Visitors

Posted March 12, 2008 at 6:36pm

With the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center in sight, Members are focusing on the experience visitors will have — and are paying particular attention to how they will get there.

At an oversight hearing sponsored by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch on Wednesday, Members raised concern over the plans to transport folks to the CVC, which call for visitors to walk from a bus drop-off point near the West Front or to board a special city-run Circulator bus from Union Station.

But that could create undue hardship for CVC visitors, who already have spent a lot of money and effort to come to the Capitol, appropriators argued.

“I’m not sure it’s totally satisfactory,” subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said of the plan. “I really wish we would maybe think about some other solutions.”

It’s a tricky problem to solve.

Under a ban instituted by the Capitol Police last year, private tour buses cannot access Constitution and Independence avenues between First Street on the West Front and First Street on the East Front. In addition, the eastern part of First Street — which runs in front of the Library of Congress and Supreme Court — is closed to private bus traffic.

When the ban was instituted, Capitol Police argued that it was needed to protect the Capitol from potential terrorist attacks, since buses are the least secure vehicles traveling near the Congressional campus. Ultimately, modifying or repealing the bus ban will be up to the Capitol Police Board, which is made up of the Senate and House Sergeants-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol.

But regardless of whether the ban is repealed, CVC officials should be able to come up with a solution that makes it easier for visitors to reach the Capitol, Members said. With that in mind, subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) asked AOC officials to come up with an alternative plan and budget proposal to present to the committee.

“This is not Disney World. This is the U.S. Capitol, and we have to be really focused on security,” she said. “But this is the people’s institution.”

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) noted that debate over the exact security measures needed to protect the Capitol is nothing new. When Bonner worked as a Congressional staffer, he recalled, there were heated discussions over whether a fence should be built around the Capitol.

“We resisted that, because this building really is a symbol of what we stand for in a free and open society,” Bonner said.

A number of other visitor-related topics were discussed during Wednesday’s hearing, including the design of the CVC’s Web site and an advance-reservation system.

Current mock-ups of the CVC’s Web site allow visitors to schedule Capitol tours through the Capitol Guide Service or a staff-led tour through their Member’s office, said Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services.

Member Web sites would be connected to the CVC site, and Members could send constituents confirmations via e-mail or through the Postal Service, Rouse said.

Wasserman Schultz — who has fought for the past several months to ensure that staff-led tours continue after the CVC opens — asked Rouse to design the site to make it especially clear that visitors can book tours through their Members’ offices. Current mock-ups do not effectively inform visitors that they can book a tour through their Member, Wasserman Schultz argued.

Officials also are moving ahead with plans to staff the CVC. Notably, Rouse introduced Maurice Parrish, the new deputy chief executive officer for visitor services, to the panel, and said the CVC recently advertised to hire more than 50 visitor assistants.

In the next few months, Rouse expects to hire a gift shop manager and other building staff, she said, noting that she is working closely with a number of Congressional caucuses to ensure the CVC staff has the most diverse background possible.

Construction-wise, the CVC is continuing on schedule, said acting Architect Stephen Ayers, despite two new problems that emerged during the past several weeks, including difficulties with the wiring of the facility’s fire alarm system.

The AOC fire marshal found that the system would not be able to “sufficiently minimize the negative results of a simulated electrical short circuit,” according to a Government Accountability Office report. But Ayers told the panel that the cause has been found and is being repaired.

“We think that problem is solved,” he said.

The second problem concerns the CVC’s smoke exhaust system, which was found during the testing process to not fully meet its design requirements. That will require several large components to be replaced, according to the GAO.

Although the repair process will take several weeks, it is not expected to delay the CVC’s scheduled November opening, Ayers said.