- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Congress has awarded a $144 million contract for the next construction stage of the Capitol Visitor Center a giant project promising improved security and tourist comfort, but facing criticism about mounting costs.
Architect of the Capitol Alan M. Hantman said yesterday that the contract would go to the Washington-area office of Manhattan Construction Co., a Tulsa, Okla.-based firm recently involved in construction of the Capitol dome in Oklahoma City.
The visitor center, one of the most ambitious construction projects in the history of the U.S. Capitol, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2005 at a cost of $373.5 million.
The three-level underground facility will give visitors access to food, displays, theaters and gift shops. It will also allow security checks to be conducted away from the main building.
Mr. Hantman, in announcing the contract, said workers had "endured one of the wettest winters on record to keep this project moving forward and be in a position to begin sequencing two activities on schedule."
But Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, earlier this month wrote Mr. Hantman, questioning his ability to manage the project without delays and cost overruns.
Mr. Obey said he was "disinclined" to sign a letter approving further spending on the project, and threatened to block new construction.
Mr. Obey's spokesman, David Sirota, said that after the current Easter recess, Mr. Obey would talk to the Office of the Capitol Architect about his concerns, which include creation of an $18 million contingency account that Mr. Obey described as a slush fund over which Congress would have no control.
When the center was approved in 1999, its cost was estimated at $265 million. Since then Congress has approved an additional $70 million for House and Senate office space in the complex and another $38.5 million to enhance security after the September 11 attacks.
At a Senate hearing last month, Mr. Hantman said bids for the second phase of construction were 10 percent to 15 percent above government estimates, a cost increase he said was a result of the high-priced Washington construction market.
The architect's office agreed a year ago to a $99 million contract for the first phase of construction, which involves site demolition, excavation, foundation work and construction of a new truck-service tunnel.
Currently about 300 truckloads, or 3,000 tons, of material are being removed every day from the site, located on the east plaza between the Capitol and the Supreme Court.
The second phase will include installation of electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, and laying floors and stonework. The center is scheduled to be completed by December 2005, but parts of it may be available for the January 2005 presidential inauguration ceremonies.

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