- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Capitol Visitor Center, the largest construction project in the U.S. Capitol’s 215-year history, should be ready to open this November, officials said yesterday.

Terrell Dorn of the Government Accountability Office told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing that the Architect of the Congress estimates of a completion cost of $621 million were “reasonable,” assuming no unusual delays.

Some delays are possible, he added, noting problems with a fire alarm system that could pose risks to the schedule.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the legislative branch subcommittee, said she was pleased to hear the project appeared to be on track.

But “we can’t grow complacent, even with construction nearly complete,” said Mrs. Wasserman-Schultz, Florida Democrat. “Anything later than a November 2008 opening or more than a $621 million price tag isn’t going to cut it.”

The visitor’s center, an underground complex on the east side of the Capitol between the Capitol and the Supreme Court building, was supposed to cost $265 million when ground was broken in 2000.

But higher costs for construction materials, other overruns and security components added after the September 11 terrorist attacks, including tunnels that double as emergency evacuation routes, added to the cost. Lawmakers also requested the project be expanded to include work space and meeting rooms.

Due to the add-ons and other delays, the original completion date of January 2005, was pushed back to the fall of 2006 and now November.

The final 580,000 square foot site will have an exhibition gallery, orientation theaters, a 550-seat cafeteria, gift shops and other amenities for visitors who now must wait in line outside for tours of the Capitol.

Lawmakers considered the center for years. But it was only in 1998, after a mentally disturbed gunman ran into the building and killed two Capitol Police officers, that Congress approved the start of construction. With completion, visitors will go through security at the entrance of the center rather than at the Capitol itself.

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