CVC Watch

Posted April 14, 2008 at 6:37pm

With the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center just months away, Capitol Police officials are in the midst of preparations designed to ensure the facility operates smoothly — and stays safe — when visitors begin moving through the $621 million center this fall.

[IMGCAP(1)]Chief Phillip Morse is to testify today during a monthly oversight hearing conducted by the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. There are plenty of CVC-related topics for him to discuss, from the status of overall security planning to more specific safety issues, including how staff-led tours of the Capitol will operate.

Although the CVC will serve to educate the public on the history of the legislative branch, the facility primarily was built as a way to streamline security at the Capitol.

For example, the CVC’s main entrance features multiple magnetometers to help screen large groups of visitors — and that screening process will take place in a concrete and steel room designed to withstand a major blast.

But not everything can be handled with technology — the CVC, as the largest expansion in the history of the Capitol, requires additional officers to patrol it.

Testifying at a budget hearing last week, Morse asked appropriators to provide funding in fiscal 2009 for 10 additional officers. Congress already authorized the hiring of 21 new sworn officers in fiscal 2008.

The department also is requesting $4.9 million to cover overtime costs related to the CVC, including funds for existing personnel to protect the facility until the additional officers are recruited, hired, trained and deployed, Morse told the subcommittee.

Not all the officers patrolling the CVC are expected to be rookies. With the CVC providing a centralized place for visitors to enter the Capitol complex, police officials are studying ways to close or limit the hours of other entrances, Morse said, which could let additional officers transfer to the CVC.

One thing that remains uncertain, however, is if the CVC entrance will be the only way for visitors to enter the Capitol — and officials are expected to hash out the issue today.

Visitors on staff-led tours now access the Capitol via tunnels in the Russell Senate and Cannon House office buildings, but Morse and other security officials have recommended that visitors be allowed to access the Capitol only through the CVC’s main entrance.

The tunnels are not designed to screen large groups and should be open only to Members and staff, security officials argue.

But several Members have complained that forcing visitors to enter through the CVC rather than the tunnels could create an inconvenience for some visitors, who might be forced to wait outside in extreme weather should the CVC lines get too long.

Another issue to be addressed today is how tour groups will arrive at the center.

Under current proposals, visitors traveling on private tour buses would get to the CVC by walking from a drop-off point on the West Front of the Capitol or by riding a special Circulator bus from Union Station, which would cost $1 and drop people off directly at the site.

The reason? Security officials worry that the private buses, with their concealed luggage compartments, are a perfect place to hide an explosive. With that in mind, officials last year banned those buses from streets surrounding the CVC site.

But Members, again seeking to ensure that visitors have easy access to the site, recently asked acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers to draft new transportation plans for the site, and Morse is expected to share his thoughts today.

CVC Project Executive Bernie Ungar also is slated to testify, as is Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services. Government Accountability Office analyst Terry Dorn is expected to be on hand to give his assessment of the CVC’s process.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. in Room 2359 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

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Although several tours typically are given of the CVC site each day, news photographers haven’t been allowed to take pictures of the site for months now.

Citing security concerns, AOC officials have prohibited photography of the site while contractors test the facility’s complex fire- and life-safety systems. The only photos available are those provided by the AOC itself. (In case you were wondering, it has been a year since Roll Call was allowed in to take pictures.)

But new photos could soon be on the way. CVC officials have announced they are preparing to host a media day to unveil the new facility — although they have yet to announce a date.