Overseers Get Last Briefing on CVC

Posted September 24, 2008 at 6:38pm

Tour buses will not be allowed to drop off their passengers at the entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center, forcing visitors to either walk from the opposite side of the Capitol or find their own way from Union Station.

The CVC — the largest and most expensive expansion to the Capitol in its history — was built to streamline security. Members hoped the underground center would be a one-stop entrance for visitors, alleviating crowded corridors and decreasing the number of lost tourists.

But at the thirteenth and final CVC oversight hearing on Wednesday, that vision seemed optimistic.

Capitol Police officials told the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch that buses shouldn’t drop off passengers at the entrance to the CVC — an entrance designed for bus drop-off.

Instead, the Capitol Police Board recommended that buses drop off passengers on the opposite side of the Capitol.

Tightened security is to blame. Capitol Police officials are wary of the luggage compartments of private buses and have thus prohibited them from streets close to the Capitol.

“Right now, our chief recommendation is that we continue as we are — dropping off on the West Front — and not do any screening right now,” said Bill Livingood, House Sergeant-at-Arms and chairman of the Capitol Police Board.

CVC officials, meanwhile, told Members they had six specially designed golf carts to drive those who can’t make the walk from the West Front drop-off point to the CVC’s entrance on the East Front. In March, they hope to purchase six more, at a cost of $18,000 each.

This plan hasn’t changed much in recent months, despite Members’ outspoken criticism. On Wednesday, subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) asked how the golf carts will function when Congress is in session and the Capitol’s lawn and sidewalks are crowded.

“I don’t know,” said Terrie Rouse, the CVC’s chief executive officer for visitor services. “I think that is something we will definitely find out in the test and adjust period.”

Wednesday’s oversight hearing was cut short because of votes in the House, and the subcommittee adjourned into a private meeting to talk about security issues and transportation.

In that meeting, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse presented options for prescreening private buses and potentially allowing them to drop off passengers at the CVC entrance. But Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), said none of those plans will go into action in the near future.

Pre-screening will only occur, he said, “if the Capitol Police Board approves a location for screening tour buses and allows screened buses to drop off at the CVC entrance.”

Even if visitors must walk a couple of blocks, they’ll find a complete and decked-out visitor center. Few construction issues remain, and all parties agree that the CVC will be ready to open on Dec. 2 for a final price tag of about $621 million.

On Wednesday, Members gushed at the progress of a project that was once woefully behind schedule.

Wasserman Schultz said the last oversight hearing was needed only to “smooth the edges.” And Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif), an ex-officio member of the subcommittee, made a rare appearance to announce a reversal from his long-standing “serious reservations” about the project.

“I must say as I watch this progress, it is a phenomenal addition to the Capitol,” he said.

Members are now focused on the operations side, including transportation, staffing and exhibits. Funding is also an issue; without a fiscal 2009 budget, CVC officials are hoping the continuing resolution will include enough to open.

CVC spokeswoman Sharon Gang wouldn’t say how much money the center needs or how much is expected, citing “ongoing discussions.”

But in her opening testimony for Wednesday’s hearing — which she didn’t read because of time constraints — Rouse said there were “very real concerns” about operating under a CR and that she was working with Congressional staff to resolve them.

“It is possible to open the Capitol Visitor Center under the constrained circumstances that arise under a continuing resolution,” Rouse wrote in her statement. “Even limited funds will allow us to provide adequate service during non-peak months when our visitors are mostly local and regional.”

But, she added, the CVC will need to defer some purchases and activities. Gang, however, wouldn’t say what specific cuts would be made.