CVC Watch

Posted July 9, 2008 at 6:44pm

The Capitol Visitor Center is a marvel in the making, a $621 million building made of expensive stone and filled with historic artifacts.

[IMGCAP(1)]But, some five years after construction began, officials still don’t have a way to get visitors to the door and Members are predicting the lack of a workable plan will lead to “chaos.”

“Patchwork, wax, spit and tape. That’s what I think about when I hear these plans — if you can even call them plans,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “This whole thing is really getting comical to the point of sadness.”

Officials originally planned to have tourists dropped off at the doorstep of the CVC. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the Capitol Police prohibited unscreened buses from pulling up so close to the Capitol, and now buses are left with very few options.

The issue has been brought up at every CVC oversight hearing for the past few months, and Members have appeared more and more irritated at the lack of a resolution.

Tuesday marked the last oversight hearing before the August recess, and CVC officials presented the Appropriations subcommittee with tentative solutions.

All current plans have tour buses dropping off passengers at the Capitol’s West Front, where it’s an uphill walk to the CVC from the opposite side of the Capitol. Some proposals include having a tram or Capitol-owned buses taking visitors to the CVC, but all would add more money to the already expensive project.

On Tuesday, Members grilled Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse on whether buses could be prescreened and emptied of luggage before coming near the Capitol — and thus be allowed to stop in front of the CVC.

Morse didn’t rule out that possibility, but he also deferred questions to when he finishes a report on the options for prescreening buses. That report is due out on July 21.

Asked if he might ever be comfortable allowing buses that close to the CVC, Morse replied that his only concern is for “vehicles of that size to be screened.”

It’s not a small obstacle to overcome: The buses would need to be checked by officers and a dog before ever entering the Capitol complex, and it would all have to be done without disturbing people and traffic.

But Members argued that it would still be easier than the current situation. Right now, the only available options to arrive at the Capitol (or the CVC) are for visitors to take a tourist bus to the West Front drop-off or the metro or use public bus transportation.

Disabled visitors would be able to take golf-cart-like vehicles from the West Front drop-off point to the CVC on the East Front. But even that service is limited.

“There’s nobody here that believes this is going to work,” Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) told CVC and police officials Tuesday. “I’m not even sure you believe it.”

The plans are further complicated by the possibility of a continuing resolution for fiscal 2009. Not only would extra transportation be hard to fund, but staffing the CVC would become a burden.

Terrie Rouse, the CVC chief executive officer for visitor services, told Members that without fiscal 2009 funding, the CVC would be so severely understaffed that there wouldn’t be enough employees to direct visitors or operate new equipment.

Even one of Rouse’s suggested plans to help fund the operation of the CVC in the absence of a budget — to get a loan from the Architect of the Capitol — was revealed during the hearing as impossible. Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, said such a move was illegal.

The CVC is slated to be ready for opening by November, though officials haven’t announced an opening date.

But on Tuesday, subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) brought up the possibility of passing a separate funding bill. And LaHood suggested the opening be delayed until Congress passes the budget.

“I say suspend the opening of the visitor’s center so we have the right people in the right place” when it opens, he said.