Enough of the Capitol Visitor Center will be completed by mid-January to provide a staging ground for the presidential inauguration, but several key members of Congress say they are growing frustrated with the center's slow progress and swelling cost.
The architect of the Capitol, who is managing construction of the 580,000-square-foot underground facility, has told lawmakers that the 700-foot-wide pink granite plaza that will serve as the center's roof will be ready to accommodate the presidential motorcade and other ceremonial activities on the Capitol's East Front. (The inauguration itself will take place on the West Front, with President Bush facing the Mall as he gives his address.)
"There's no doubt at all," Tom Fontana, spokesman for Architect of the Capitol Alan M. Hantman, said last week. "Even if it were to snow from now until the inauguration, we're poised to turn over the plaza to the inaugural committee."
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which shares oversight for the project, said no inaugural activities are scheduled for the area.
"The goal by Inauguration Day is to have the stone all laid out there so it's open on the top. That's the goal, although, frankly, I'm not sure it's going to be used," Ney said.
The three-level center, which will be able to handle about 4,000 visitors in a space about two-thirds the size of the Capitol, is intended to provide more convenience for tourists and better security for Congress. About a third of it, 170,000 square feet, will be devoted to Congress's needs in the form of new office space, secure briefing areas, television studios and a 450-seat congressional auditorium.
When work crews broke ground in 2002, the project was estimated to cost $373.5 million and to open in January 2005. Now the price tag is $421 million, and officials say they hope for an opening in spring 2006. Construction is about 50 to 55 percent complete, Fontana said last week.
Hantman has attributed the delays and higher cost to factors largely beyond his control, such as wet weather and extensive efforts to preserve historic fountains, retaining walls and trees. Underground obstacles have included a nearby Amtrak tunnel that was misidentified on a chart. Recently, workers discovered more asbestos than they had expected when they began reshaping a part of the Capitol that will connect to the visitor center, which delayed demolition work by several days.
The project's rising cost and pace -- not to mention the noise and mess outside their office doorsteps -- have grated on lawmakers, even though the Government Accountability Office has said Congress is partly to blame for frequently changing the center's design and failing to adequately track the associated costs.
"We're in a delay right now, I guess, over virtually everything," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee funding the project.
Kingston, who met with GAO analysts recently, said setbacks in key areas are rippling throughout the project.
"We are concerned about delays pushing back completion and costs increasing again," he said. "The GAO has been more accurate than the [Architect of the Capitol] in terms of money and delays. . . . We think those are closer to a reality than a possibility right now."
Fontana said that, considering the difficulty of the project, it is going reasonably well.
"No one is twiddling their thumbs out here." he said. "We're working very aggressively in very difficult conditions."