CVC Watch

Posted May 12, 2008 at 6:26pm

Twenty-five-foot tulip poplar trees have sprung up overnight at the Capitol Visitor Center, as officials work to beautify the Capitol’s East Front before the center’s November opening.

[IMGCAP(1)]The hope is that the mature trees will help re-create landscaping plans first conceived in 1874 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the Capitol’s first landscape architect. His design was one of tree canopies, marble terraces and foot walks.

By the time the CVC opens, workers will have planted 85 trees — some from seedlings. That includes a tree-lined pathway to the CVC’s entrance from First Street Northeast. Visitors will also enjoy two Olmsted-designed fountains, which were tested last week.

But as the date gets closer, Members are focusing more on how to get visitors to that idyllic entrance. Tour buses may be forced to drop off their passengers at the Capitol’s West Front or even at Union Station because of security worries.

Last week, the issue came up at a public witness hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. Former Rep. Jim Santini (D-Nev.), the legislative counsel of the National Tour Association, asked Members to consider letting the busing industry help develop a solution.

His ideas included banning luggage from private buses, pre-scheduled drop-offs at a closer location and registration for every passenger.

Members also gained insight into the difficulties for disabled and elderly visitors visiting the Capitol — especially since Sept. 11, 2001.

An official from the nonprofit health group Easter Seals described the trouble the group had at their convention in 2007, when it brought a group of disabled visitors to Capitol Hill.

Despite spending months beforehand coordinating with the Capitol Police and Members, the group was unable to drive a small bus near enough to the Capitol to pick up passengers. The reason: Not enough Capitol Police officers to clear the vehicle.

Jennifer Dexter, the groups’ assistant vice president for government relations, told the subcommittee about the difficulty of getting one disabled child across the Capitol campus.

“We were lucky that she was a small child and her mother could help transfer her to a cab,” Dexter said, reading from a prepared statement, “but as I saw the cab pull away, I was chagrined by the sight of her wheelchair hanging half out of the trunk of the cab and was worried it might be damaged.”

Such difficulties are hard to fix with heightened security and a limited number of police officers. The CVC was partly built to provide a streamlined security checkpoint into the Capitol, as well as an easy access point for visitors.

But so far, police have made it clear they don’t want private buses dropping passengers off at the doorstep.

The issue will likely be brought up again at the subcommittee’s monthly oversight hearing on May 22.

Construction and spending topics, on the other hand, have moved to the back burner. Much of what remains to be done is decorative: bronze railings, sod planting and glass paneling are all under way. In the tunnel to the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building — where visitors will see new tech-savvy exhibits — workers are laying the terrazzo floor.

Workers are now going down a punch-list full of touch-up projects such as door alignment, carpet repair and bronze polishing. The list is just over half complete.