- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2007

The long-overdue Capitol Visitor Center project is expected to be completed by fall 2008, says Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican.

Mr. Allard acknowledged the three-year delay has been frustrating and inconvenient for Capitol Hill workers, neighbors and visitors, but he said some of the setbacks were unavoidable and that he is pleased with the recent progress.

He said that, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee from February 2005 to January 2007, he worked to speed up the process and ensure cost-effectiveness. He held 15 monthly hearings and is now the subcommittee’s ranking member.

“I’m convinced we wouldn’t be where we are today without the hearings,” Mr. Allard said.

The budget for the project has more than doubled since 2001 — from $265 million to $553 million, with a request for an additional $20 million, said project spokesman Thomas Fontana. On Monday, he toured the sprawling three-level,580,000-square-foot center being built below the East Plaza of the Capitol.

He said most of the cost overruns and schedule delays were the result of major security upgrades requested after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The majority of walls and flooring are in place, and a lot of the remaining work involves security, Mr. Fontana also said.

“It’s good to see we are where we are,” said Mr. Allard after his first tour in six months. “I would encourage the people involved to keep on schedule.”

Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol, testified Tuesday before the House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee there have been setbacks in the past month, including the loss of a week in fire-alarm pretesting, but work crews are making progress. He said that 97 percent of the work is complete on the wall stone and 70 percent of the work on the floor stone is complete.

Mr. Ayers said delays were also created by the city fire marshal’s plan to test the center’s fire and life-safety systems and that his team is looking for a way to speed up the process.

Mr. Allard, who toured the site with his wife, acknowledged his involvement with the project has been “tedious work.”

“But it needs to be done,” he said.

Quality concerns also have increased costs and delayed completion because the center, which is three-quarters the size of the Capitol building, is being built with expensive materials such as marble and sandstone, Mr. Fontana said.

He said the materials are needed to help reflect the “grandeur” and prominence associated with the Capitol.

Mr. Fontana also said progress is especially slow because of the high security and not being able to close the Capitol during construction.

Workers must undergo complete background checks, and trucks have to be screened twice before entering the site.

The underground facility, which will have skylights for natural lighting and a view the Capitol dome, will also include displays of rare documents, film screenings and interactive sites designed to pique children’s interest in the legislative process.

The Statue of Freedom will be moved into the center from the Russell Senate Office Building, where it currently gets little public exposure.

The center also will have a food court, 26 restrooms and 23 elevators, some of which will transport up to 25 visitors at a time to the Capitol building.

Serious discussion about having such a center started after two Capitol Police officers were fatally shot in 1998, but before that there was some consideration of giving the public a place to wait, especially in inclement weather, for tours of the Capitol, which can welcome 1,500 people an hour, Mr. Fontana said.

Said Mr. Allard: “I’d like to have [the center] done now, [but] all in all, it’s going to work out. American and foreign visitors will be able to appreciate what this country is all about.”



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