- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Capitol Visitor Center will open its doors to millions of tourists next month three years behind schedule and almost $360 million above budget - but a welcome relief to the long lines without food, restrooms or shelter that visitors once had to endure to see the halls of Congress.

The underground center, the largest single construction project in the Capitol’s two-century history in terms of size and expense, will cost $621 million, more than double the cost had the center been completed on schedule, in December 2005.

The more than 3 million people that visit the Capitol every year previously had to get in lines at the bottom of Capitol Hill and often wait in the heat, the cold and the rain to sign up for tours. They then had to trek up the hill to enter the building.

Now visits will begin at the center, below ground between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, then move to the vast Emancipation Hall, which is filled with statues moved from the Capitol and a model of the Statue of Freedom that is perched above the Rotunda. The Capitol Dome looms overhead through skylights.

Dec. 2 is the 145th anniversary of the raising of the statue atop the dome.

Before beginning tours of the Capitol itself, people can visit an exhibition hall to see historic documents, artifacts and interactive computers, see shows in two theaters and eat at a 530-seat restaurant area. There are two gift shops and 26 public restrooms, compared to five inside the Capitol.

Among the artifacts are a letter from John F. Kennedy’s message to Congress proposing travel to the moon.

Also on view is the catafalque, the raised bier first built to support the casket of Ronald Reagan have lain in state in the Rotunda.

Visitors will by Friday be able to book tours by going to the Web site www.visitthecapitol.gov or by dialing 202-226-8000.

The idea of such a center originated in the 1970s, and Congress authorized funds for planning in 1991.

But momentum for the project did not come until 1998, when a mentally unstable man burst through the doors of the Capitol, killing two police officers before being subdued in the office of then-Republican Whip Tom DeLay. That impressed on lawmakers the need to move security stations for visitors away from the main building. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2000.

Security also was a key factor in the cost overruns. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress decided to add two tunnels, one for truck deliveries and one linking the Capitol with the Library of Congress, which also could serve as emergency-evacuation routes.

Despite grumbling from lawmakers about increasing costs, Congress also approved the addition of House and Senate office space. Then there were the usual overruns associated with a project in which 9,000 workers set more than 400,000 pieces of stone, some weighing as much as 500 pounds.

Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, said Monday the center was “a treasure in itself.”

“I don’t think it’s extravagant,” he said. “We have built a building that’s here to last another 215 years.”

Changes were still taking place even as the opening approached. South Carolina Republican, balked at the budget because he said the center’s exhibits ignored the country’s religious heritage.

To avoid further delays, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Utah Republican, agreed in principle to several changes, including engraving “In God We Trust” in stone in a prominent place. The cost was an additional $150,000.



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