CVC Watch

Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:56pm

The impending opening of the Capitol Visitor Center has brought an increased level of attention to the Capitol campus, with folks on and off Capitol Hill anxious to see what exactly $621 million and nearly a decade of preparation produces. [IMGCAP(1)]

But for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), now also is a perfect time to look at how the CVC’s opening will affect the complex’s other needs, from fixing deteriorating buildings to figuring out exactly what to do about the controversial Capitol Power Plant.

“The new addition helps focus on the entire complex in a way we have not done,” Norton said of the CVC. “All of its component parts have to come together. … You can’t put up a new visitor center and let the historic Capitol rot.”

Norton will address the Capitol complex’s future today at a hearing sponsored by the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.

Norton chairs the subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol complex but has lagged behind panels such as the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch in hosting oversight hearings on the CVC.

Today’s hearing will reassert some of the committee’s jurisdiction over the campus, Norton said. The goal is to conduct a“top to bottom” review of all things campus-related, with acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard and top Capitol Police officials all expected to testify.

Ayers and Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services, will provide the latest updates on the CVC project itself, an AOC spokeswoman said.

But aside from the CVC, the AOC must address a range of other infrastructure needs, including the complex’s backlog of major maintenance projects, said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Republicans on the committee.

The AOC asked for $643 million in its fiscal 2009 budget request, with the bulk of that looking to tackle maintenance and repair projects, including the renovation of the Cannon House Office Building, which is rife with life and safety issues.

The forward-looking budget approach is something Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) and subcommittee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) favor, Harclerode said.

After all, getting all that maintenance done isn’t an easy thing to do.

“You’ve got all these needs, and on top of that, we now have the Green the Capitol Initiative, which now adds more to the burden of maintenance needs up here,” he said.

Beard is expected to discuss the latest progress of the Green the Capitol Initiative. One noteworthy item: The House now is expected to achieve carbon neutrality by July 4, months ahead of schedule, according to a CAO spokeswoman.

Beard also will discuss the energy-efficient relighting of the Capitol Dome and give an update on the installation of electricity-monitoring meters in House office buildings.

But one of Norton’s main greening concerns is the power plant, which heats and cools the Capitol campus. It is powered using natural gas, heating oil and coal, depending on whatever is most cost-effective.

And although the Green the Capitol project has allowed more money to be allocated to purchase more natural gas, there is lingering concern — especially from Capitol Hill residents — that the plant is an environmental hazard, Norton said.

“The power plant does not fit a modern Capitol complex,” Norton said. “If you are modernizing the Capitol complex with a new visitor center and trying to upgrade the historic Capitol, then the power plant sticks out as an anomaly.”

The CVC itself won’t be ignored at the hearing. Norton particularly is interested in seeing whether security officials are prepared to handle the increased number of people expected to visit the Capitol after the CVC opens, she said.

And then there’s the issue of transportation.

Figuring out exactly how visitors will get to the facility has been a focus among Members and other Congressional officials in recent weeks, and is expected to be discussed today.

Under current regulations, private tour buses are not allowed to drop off people directly at the CVC. Instead, plans call for visitors to walk over from the West Front or to board a special city-run Circulator bus from Union Station.

Security officials have said the bus ban is needed, since private buses — with their concealed luggage compartments — are among the least secure vehicles traveling near the Capitol.

But that ban aside, Members have argued that asking visitors to walk a lengthy distance or pay to board a bus is an unnecessary hardship. Last month, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, directed AOC officials to draft new transportation plans for the CVC.

Ayers, Rouse, city transportation officials and representatives from various tour bus groups are expected to be on hand today to discuss those other options, Norton said.

“Americans need to walk a little bit, given the obesity problem,” Norton joked. “But I don’t think you need to walk a mile to get to the visitor center.”

As for the CVC itself, Norton said she visited the site on Monday morning and is pleased with the facility’s recent progress.

“I think people are going to be very satisfied,” she said, adding that the CVC maintains “the grandeur of the Capitol itself.”