Capitol Improvement: The New Visitor Center at the U.S. Capitol
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
KWAME HOLMAN: The grounds of the United States Capitol often are swelled with the activity of tourists, lobbyists, and members of Congress. But recently, most of the commotion has been caused by the booming sounds of construction. The action is on the east front lawn of the Capitol Building, within these ten-foot walls. This is the site of the new Capitol Visitors Center, a state-of-the-art underground welcome center for the two million tourists who come here each year. Where once there was a plaza, trees, and fountains, today there is a five-acre-wide, 70- foot-deep hole in the ground– the beginnings of the largest expansion of the Capitol since it was built 203 years ago. Those with official business in the Capitol must navigate around concrete barriers to enter, while most tourists are routed to a temporary entry point on the west front.
MAN: I think it’s wonderful, and whatever little, minor inconveniences there are, which are not many, are well worth it.
KWAME HOLMAN: The purpose of the visitors center is to make touring the Capitol a more pleasurable experience. But equally important, officials say, it will give Capitol police better control over the flow of visitors. Security improvements were demanded five years ago after a lone gunman got inside the building and killed two police officers. Alan Hantman is the man in charge of the massive project. He was appointed architect of the Capitol in 1997.
ALAN HANTMAN: With a dozen entrances into the Capitol, it’s very difficult for the police to know who’s coming, where a threat may be coming from. So with 90-95 percent of the people coming into the building coming through a remote screening facility over here, treated with respect, and welcomed into the visitors center, it will allow the police at the other doors to know that these are members, these are members of the staff, these are folks coming on business, and much better be able to really control the level of security for the Capitol Building and for people coming into the visitors center itself.
KWAME HOLMAN: The visitors center, sunk three stories below street level, will house a massive gathering place for visitors called the great hall, a 600- seat cafeteria, two theaters that will feature historical films about the Capitol, and a 400-seat auditorium for use by tour groups, as well as members of Congress. Above ground, the view will be of a tree-lined pedestrian plaza. Skylights from the center below will be built into the plaza, giving an expected 7,000 daily visitors inside the center a unique view of the Capitol dome. But architect Hantman acknowledges construction has not gone according to plan.
An unusually wet spring this year, and reliance on inaccurate underground maps, led to construction delays, adding to costs that already were rising. In 1999, Congress budgeted $265 million for the visitors center. Today’s price tag: $373 million. Also contributing to the increase were security upgrades mandated after the September 11 attacks, totaling $38 million; and a late decision to add office space for members at a cost of $70 million. Construction of the Capitol visitors center was supported broadly among members. But like many issues before Congress, there is a battle over funding. Some appropriators, the members in charge of spending the money and paying the bills, are balking at the rising costs. Republican Jack Kingston chairs the house appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Capitol visitors center project. At a hearing in July, Kingston told Capitol architect Hantman it was time to consider scaling back the visitors center to save money.
REP. JACK KINGSTON: The other thing I would like to see is a list of potential cutoff points of tangible bricks and mortar that we can cut out of this project so that we can tell members we’ve searched our soul, we’ve searched the plans, and we’ve searched the designs, and we’ve come up with some things.
SPOKESMAN: No, that’s… I appreciate that, Mr. Chairman.
KWAME HOLMAN: Postponing work on certain parts of the project, Hantman says, is a decision that belongs to Congress. Kingston agrees, and suggests one possibility is to strike plans to build a $10 million tunnel that would connect the Capitol to the Library of Congress, a thousand feet away.
REP. JACK KINGSTON: I’ve been a member of congress for ten years. I have observed most members of Congress almost never go to the Library of Congress. If they do, it’s once a year. And you know what? I’ll give them an umbrella. I don’t think a tunnel is necessary. What we want to do is see some things cut out, the way you would do it if you were adding on to your house. You cut out a bathroom, you come up with some cost reductions. Gee, whiz, it’s done every day in the United States of America in the private sector. We too, in Congress, can do things like this.
KWAME HOLMAN: But fellow House Republican John Mica, a member of the Capitol Preservation Commission and a former private developer, said doing anything less than completing the visitors center as planned would be a mistake.
REP. JOHN MICA: I think when you do a project of this magnitude, you don’t want to do it on a half-baked basis. You don’t want to say, “oh, we should have put a tunnel into here. Oh, we should have opened this up there.” So I think it is being done very wisely. Most of the costs… added costs can be justified.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mica was an original sponsor of legislation to build the visitors center. He said the rising costs have been due to factors beyond both Congress’s and the architects’ control.
REP. JOHN MICA: First of all, we had the shooting of two police officers. The second thing that drove the cost up are the effects of September 11. Both have added considerable costs and design changes to the project.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Congressman Kingston says the security issue has become overused as an excuse to spend more money.
REP. JACK KINGSTON: It is really odd to me that nobody thought about security when this was built. You know, Washington has backed into… anything we can put the name of security on means “I’m going to spend more money.” Bring up 9/11; it’s synonymous with “I’m over-budget.”
KWAME HOLMAN: But just last week, over Kingston’s objections, the House joined the Senate in approving an additional $48 million for security upgrades. Despite the rising costs and periodic delays, the visitors center still is on schedule to open in December 2005.