- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

The increasing cost of building the underground Capitol Visitor Center has project officials considering asking Congress for more money.

“There could be increases next year,” said Tom Fontana, the center’s project communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol. “We might need to go back to Congress. But if we keep things tight, we can keep within budget.”

The cost of building the three-level center, which will be underneath the Capitol’s East Plaza, has grown by about $86 million since Congress increased security measures as a result of September 11, Mr. Fontana said.

Officials said the base budget of the project, which included only the core visitor center, was estimated at $265 million in 2001. The center originally was scheduled to be completed by December 2005.

Now, the cost of the 410,000-square-foot visitor center is estimated at $351 million, and the center’s completion date has been pushed back to spring 2006.

“The Capitol is unlike any other building,” Mr. Fontana said. “The security concerns, the needs of Congress — here, you’ve got a lot of bosses.”

Congress awarded the project $38.5 million for increased security measures immediately after the attacks in 2001 and provided $48 million in 2003 to cover any changes or additional management costs and to help offset losses incurred because of wet weather and unforeseen site conditions.

However, the $351 million does not include the accompanying 170,000-square-foot conference space Congress will use for meetings. Congress appropriated $70 million for the space in November 2001.

The center’s project office also is managing the build-out and finishes of that space. “They’re separate projects,” Mr. Fontana said.

The center will be the hub for the estimated 3 million visitors to the Capitol each year.

Two 250-seat theaters will show a 12-minute introductory film, and two 25-passenger elevators will transport visitors from the center into the Capitol.

Also planned are a 16,500-square-foot exhibition gallery, a food court that will accommodate up to 600 people, and 26 restrooms, according to the center project’s Web site (www.aoc.gov/cvc/cvc_overview.htm).

A 1,000-linear-foot, two-lane truck tunnel will connect to eight loading dock bays at the service level on the north side of the project area.

The Great Hall will include information and ticketing desks and offer a viewing area of the Capitol Dome through skylights.

“It’s long overdue,” Mr. Fontana said. “This is the first look at our country that many people get, and they deserve a first-rate experience.”

Project officials said delays and cost increases could have been worse.

They feared drilling into the grounds of the Capitol would uncover archaeological and historical artifacts, delaying construction and increasing the total budget.

“We’ve been really lucky so far, and have had next to no archaeological or historical obstacles,” Mr. Fontana said.

The longest delay came in spring 2003 when crews uncovered an old well. That discovery set back construction for almost two months, Mr. Fontana said.

Officials said the delays will not prevent crews from completing the center’s roof in time for Inauguration Day in January. Mr. Fontana said the structure will be able to hold a presidential motorcade, the Marine One helicopter and other vehicles.

Visitors said they look forward to the new center.

“To really know what you’re looking at — that’s how you best get it out to the public,” said Tracy Avina, 42, of Temecula, Calif.

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