CVC (Finally) Ready to Open Its Doors

Posted November 25, 2008 at 4:18pm

The idea of an underground extension to the Capitol took seed 30 years ago, gained traction in the 1990s and finally got off the ground in 2002.

Along the way, the Capitol Visitor Center has been praised, criticized, stalled, redesigned, behind schedule and over budget.

But on Tuesday, the CVC will open amid fanfare — as the largest expansion to the Capitol since it was built in a 19th-century wilderness of forests and swamps.

It is essentially a second Capitol, a 580,000-square-foot building with a footprint larger than the Capitol itself.




Click for floor plan

“I think it will stand the test of time,” said Alan Hantman, the former Architect of the Capitol who oversaw the project for 10 years. “The reality is this is not a perk for Congress. This is something necessary for the safety, security and accessibility of the millions of people who come to the Capitol.”

In many ways, the story of the CVC is the story of the Capitol — which took decades to build and ran far over budget.

In 1817, chief architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe resigned amid criticism of construction delays and cost overruns. And almost 40 years later, a Capitol Dome that was originally estimated to cost $100,000 ended up with a price tag of $1 million.

Like the Capitol and its Dome, officials promise the CVC will last decades, or even centuries, thanks to 200,000 pieces of sandstone and careful construction.

But it still carries a stigma after years of delayed timelines and cost overruns, earning an ever-present tag line of “behind schedule and over budget.”

Ten years ago, Members promised a cost of $265 million, with $100 million raised privately; today, it is a $621 million structure, almost all paid for by taxpayers.

An Idea Grows

When Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) first stepped into the Capitol as a newly elected Member in 1993, he soon became one of the Capitol Visitor Center’s biggest advocates.

At that point, the project was little more than an idea. Architect of the Capitol George White had asked for funds to build the center since the 1970s, but the plan languished in the overlapping jurisdictions of several Congressional committees.

Mica said he was struck by the conditions for visitors, who “stood out there in rain, snow, sleet, ice and cold.” He soon asked White to update the visitor center plans and estimate the cost, in preparation for a hearing.

“He comes back to me and says ‘Well, we’re looking at something like over $100 million,” Mica said in a recent interview. “I thought, ‘Dear God, George, I cannot. I’m a conservative.’”

Of course, in the years to come, the project’s price tag would balloon sixfold, and Mica would continue to be a staunch supporter.

Mica chalks up the price increase in part to major design changes over the years, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when officials added security features that Mica estimates cost $150 million.

Along the way, the CVC also got bigger. Instead of just a visitor center, Members decided to build three stories of meeting rooms, office space and secure briefing rooms.

That area takes up about 60 percent of the building, though it is much less grand than the visitor portion of the CVC. Officials continue to be vague about what it includes, but some details have emerged over the years.

One of the features is the largest-ever meeting room in the Capitol, which is outfitted with voting capabilities in case the House and Senate floors are closed for repairs. There’s also large conference rooms for secure briefings, extra space for the press and a tunnel for delivery trucks to the Capitol.

The Capitol Police have also relocated their Capitol post to the CVC, which provides much more room and privacy than the Capitol basement hallway they once occupied during breaks and roll calls. Several officers have said the area includes a decontamination room — for outbreaks of biological threats such as anthrax — but police officials won’t confirm or deny that.

Missing Deadlines

As Members changed the CVC’s plans over the years, Architect of the Capitol officials continued to tell the public the project would be substantially complete in time for the January 2005 inauguration.

By the beginning of 2004, they had changed the completion date to spring 2006, but they still insisted it would be finished enough for the inauguration. And then the date kept slipping.

As a result, almost every news article on the project focused on the delays and the ever-increasing price tag. Then-Architect Alan Hantman testified regularly at public hearings, constantly giving a completion date months ahead of the estimates of analysts at the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency.

But in a recent interview, Hantman said he was well-aware that the project would take longer. Politics, he said, forced an “artificial deadline.”

“The CVC was promised to be ready for the next inauguration, and it was really thought that, politically speaking, it needed to be completed by then,” he said, adding that Members and officials involved in the project thought a later date might jeopardize appropriations approval. “We were actually locked into an unrealistic time frame from the initiation of the project.”

In fact, in a 1999 hearing, Hantman predicted that the CVC wouldn’t be completed until 2009 — and was instantly criticized.

“I recognized the life of the project was going to span changes in leadership in the House and Senate. When new people come in, they’re going to question what the previous leadership had done,” he said. “And that’s what happened.”

Weston and 9/11

Until 1998, plans for the CVC constantly stalled as Members bickered over what should be included and who should foot the bill. Hearings on the issue were few and far between, and Members worried any funding for the project would seem like Congress was spending money on itself.

But in July 1998, a paranoid schizophrenic, Russell Weston, pushed his way into the Capitol and shot and killed two Capitol Police officers.

Until then, security threats had seemed remote; the deaths of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson stunned the Capitol Hill community and convinced Congress to open its wallet.

“Congress stopped talking about it and for the first time funded it,” said Bruce Milhans, who was then Hantman’s spokesman. “I think that the team at the Architect of the Capitol did a really good job, and I think Congress did a really good job at saying, ‘Let’s not put a Band-Aid on it.’”

Congress appropriated $100 million for the CVC and set up the Fund for the Capitol Visitor Center to raise $100 million more.

When Tom Blank took over as executive director of the fund in May 2001, fundraising had stalled. Blank attributes this to the unique constraints on raising money for a public building, including the fact that the foundation couldn’t name parts of the CVC after corporations in exchange for money.

Then planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and everything changed. By then, the fund had raised about $40 million of its goal, mostly from selling commemorative coins.

“When Sept. 11 happened, it seemed appropriate to us to kind of go into a quiet mode,” Blank said. “We did that for about 30 to 45 days because obviously the country was in mourning, and it didn’t seem appropriate to aggressively fund.”

Less than a year later, the fund closed, and the CVC became a completely different and wildly more expensive project.

‘We’re Late, We’re Late,We’re Late.’

In the months and years after the terrorist attacks, Members — plus officials from the AOC, the Capitol Police, the Secret Service and others — drastically redesigned the underground building to include a slew of security features.

Among them: moving the air intake from the Capitol lawn to the top of the building, installing ubiquitous cameras and building stronger walls.

“I know we asked for more, and we caused some heartache by doing that,” said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who was Capitol Police chief from 2002 to 2006. “But I think those who were making the decisions and the Architect of Capitol overseeing the Capitol Visitor Center recognized that it was a good idea.”

Those security changes immediately drove up the project’s cost — but so did the decision to keep aiming for a January 2005 completion date, despite the redesign.

To expedite the process, officials decided to split construction into two phases. The first — excavation and foundation — could be done before the redesign was finished. The second phase — wiring and walls — would have to wait until afterward.

In the end, that meant two different contractors. When the first fell behind schedule, the second would charge costs related to the delay, such as storage of materials.

Looking back, Hantman said he wishes he had waited to hire a contractor until the post-9/11 redesign was finished, thus putting the entire construction project in the hands of one company. But the decision, he said, was in “other people’s hands.”

“We would have redesigned the project, changed that date from inaugural 2005, changed the budget to include all the things that Congress wanted and not bid [it out] until it was done,” Hantman said. “Unfortunately, it came out in dribs and drabs, and the expectation was we’re late, we’re late, we’re late.”

The Public Face

Hantman became the face for the project — and all the delays and cost increases. He was the one testifying at hearings and the one answering Members’ questions on every detail and every obstacle.

But ultimately, big decisions were supposed to be made by the Capitol Preservation Commission, a bipartisan oversight board made up of leaders from the House and Senate.

The commission is a one-stop shop for Congressional approval, established to ease the gridlock that was created when several House and Senate committees had jurisdiction over the CVC.

Such a bicameral and bipartisan partnership was crucial to keeping the project moving, said Ted Van Der Meid, who was former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) chief counsel.

“At any time in that project, that thing could have fallen apart,” he said. “You had to have that support.”

But one former representative of the commission, who asked to remain anonymous, said the board sometimes got too involved in the details and having so many hands in the pot complicated and delayed construction.

“At certain points, we shouldn’t have been picking out fabrics,” the former commission representative said. Sometimes, “we ourselves got caught up in the minutiae. We should have taken a broader view on things.”

As the commission made decisions behind closed doors, Hantman continued to testify at public hearings and listen to the advice of a wider range of lawmakers.

Over the years, he was forced to repeatedly justify the project to new, or uninformed, Members.

In 2002, for example — seven years after the first plans were drawn and months before construction began — then-Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) was shocked at news that the CVC was going to be built underground.

“Do you mean we’re going to build a structure right up to the Capitol steps?” he asked.

Working with so many powerful people, who each had different ideas for the CVC, made it difficult to keep the project on track. Hantman compared it to the Freedom Tower set to be built on the former site of the World Trade Center — a project that seven years later still hasn’t gotten past the foundation.

Milhans praised Hantman for his work on the CVC but said it was hard to get “so much static” from so many people.

“When he got there, I don’t think he had a political bone in his body. It’s really hard to operate in this political bowl,” Milhans said. “Sometimes you have to say to somebody who’s very powerful, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not possible.’”

But Members pushed through changes until the very end: In 2007, Congress passed a bill changing the CVC’s “Great Hall” to “Emancipation Hall,” adding $250,000 for new signage to the project.

Adrift With No Tiller

While the CVC was sometimes overmanaged by Congress, at other times it was ignored.

When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) became chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch in early 2007, she found a CVC project that was “adrift without anyone holding the tiller.”

“I thought it was imperative that someone grab hold of the reins. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns,” she said. “There was no coordination or agreement between the GAO and the Architect of the Capitol, no agreement on what the cost would be, no agreement on what should be completed.”

For two years, Wasserman Schultz’s subcommittee held monthly hearings. Then-ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) became an ally, grilling CVC officials along with the chairwoman. The strategy, she said, was to “embarrass them into getting it done.”

“Basically, we sat on them the whole time,” she said. “They knew that everything they did was going to be questioned.”

Acting Architect Stephen Ayers, who took over the project in 2006, said the public glare was difficult but necessary.

“There’s no question, working in a large group and working in such a public environment does take extra time, does take extra persistence and focus,” he said. “But sometimes in the private forum, you don’t have to put forth that effort.”

About a year ago, the AOC and the GAO finally came to an agreement on the completion date — and ultimately met their timeline.

A World-Class Facility

Today, the CVC looks like the world-class facility Members envisioned. Visitors enter through one entrance into a large hall lit by two immense skylights, through which they get a striking view of the Capitol Dome.

A restaurant, exhibition hall and two gift shops provide some entertainment while visitors wait to go on a tour — a huge step up from the decades-long situation of visitors standing in lines outside.

And beyond the visitor’s amenities, Members will no longer have to hold hearings in cramped rooms, where the close quarters sometimes forced officers to turn away members of the public who wanted to see government in action.

It’s a “beautiful facility that is worthy of the Capitol,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But she still finds the high price tag unsettling, and she questions whether Congress would have embarked on the project if Members knew the end cost.

“Ultimately, I can’t imagine that we would have decided to spend $621 million on this facility,” she said. “I think it would have been too big a pill to swallow.”

To many who worked on the project, however — Members and AOC officials alike — the result was worth the years of challenges.

Anything less would be “shortchanging the Founding Fathers,” said former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who oversaw the CVC when he was chairman of the House Administration Committee in the late 1990s.

“Of course there were concerns about its cost, the way it’s done, but this is, I think, the major Capitol Hill enhancement of the last 50 years,” he said. “You have to look at it in the context of Capitol Hill. What would you have thought of the Cannon Office Building if it was built of chicken wire and spittle?”