Members Say They Still Get Lost Inside Visitor Center

Posted March 17, 2010 at 6:53pm

Members of Congress are still getting lost in the hallways of the Capitol Visitor Center more than a year after the underground building opened as the largest-ever addition to the Capitol.

Democrats and Republicans alike vented their frustration — albeit in a good-natured way — at a hearing Wednesday on the Architect of the Capitol’s fiscal 2011 budget request. The consensus: More signs and maps are desperately needed.

“I stumble around that place sometimes for 20 or 30 minutes,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

Members and staffers have been complaining about getting lost in the CVC since it opened on Dec. 2, 2008. Comprising 580,000 square feet, the building is a three-floor maze of meeting rooms, offices and storage space. Confusion is compounded by the fact that the first floor is on the ground level, the second is below that and the third is on the very bottom.

Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said his agency has installed additional signs and maps in the past few months and has gotten “good feedback.” But House appropriators had plenty of stories Wednesday about their continued difficulty in getting to press conferences and meetings.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, said one Member recently told her that there were only two signs to the tunnel of the Cannon House Office Building: one at the beginning of a hallway and another that someone could only see if he was walking sideways down the hallway.

“Some Members have told me that they literally need to leave bread crumbs to find their way,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz said she hopes the agency will think about installing three-dimensional maps and clearer signs — a suggestion that Ayers said he would pursue.

Members also questioned Ayers on Wednesday on his request for a $755 million budget in fiscal 2011, a massive 25.5 percent increase over the agency’s fiscal 2010 appropriation. The vast majority would go to the hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance in the Capitol complex.

Projects include renovating the Capitol’s decades-old utility tunnels and ridding them of asbestos; preserving the Capitol’s exterior stone and metal work; replacing the roof and skylight in the Hart Senate Office Building; and rehabilitating the skirt of the Capitol Dome.

Last year, House appropriators set up the House Historic Buildings Revitalization Trust Fund to restore the chamber’s office buildings, which are falling into disrepair. Recently, for example, a chunk of the plaster ceiling in the Cannon tunnel fell as a result of old plaster and water damage.

But the $50 million in the trust fund only helps defray the cost and prepare for the future. The AOC is facing more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance items — which, in Ayers’ words, are items that are “broken already and need to be fixed.”

The AOC is also juggling new construction projects, including making Congressional buildings more energy efficient and building the infrastructure for a new Capitol Police radio system.

But on Wednesday, Wasserman Schultz was also interested in the agency’s request of four additional full-time employees. Two would be the Congressional liaisons who are currently working on a temporary status. But the other two puzzled Wasserman Schultz: one for a “special assistant” to the CVC’s CEO for visitor services and another for an “interpretive curator.”

The special assistant position popped up after Maurice Parrish stepped down from his position as the CVC’s deputy CEO of visitor services. Last year, AOC officials said that the definition of the deputy CEO position changed and that Parrish would take on another spot — which some sources said would be a specially created “special assistant” position.

After he was pressed on Wednesday, Ayers identified it and the curator position as nonessential. But six months after the deputy CEO position opened, the AOC still hasn’t found a replacement for Parrish.

“We have advertised for a deputy and conducted interviews and have not found an applicant that we think is suitable,” Ayers said. The agency, he added, will soon start the search from scratch.