Beacon or Boondoggle? New Lights For the Capitol

Supporters say that relighting the Capitol would bring it on par with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, which have already received new lighting.
Supporters say that relighting the Capitol would bring it on par with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, which have already received new lighting. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The warm white glow of the Capitol dome may soon go green, part of an effort by Democratic congressional leaders to save energy and modernize the District's nocturnal landscape.

But like so many issues on Capitol Hill, the plan to update the building's 18-year-old exterior lighting has ignited partisan bickering. Republicans and other critics consider the project's early phase wasteful, and they question whether a $671,900 contract to design the lighting system was steered by Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, to a company in his home district.

"Everyone supports making the Capitol more energy efficient, but we don't have to waste taxpayer dollars to do it," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "This is a ridiculous boondoggle."

The project is part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's environmentally friendly "Green the Capitol" initiative, which includes using more recycled paper, distributing more documents electronically, purchasing carbon offsets for the House's greenhouse-gas emissions, and developing a plan to use wind power and other renewable energy sources.

Updating the lights would bring the Capitol up to par with makeovers at the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and the Washington Monument, proponents say. The Lincoln Memorial's relighting was completed in 2007, as some fixtures dating to the 1920s were replaced. The Washington Monument got new lights in 2006 to replace a 1970s system.

Lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania picked up the $900,000 tab in 2001 to overhaul a lighting system at the Jefferson Memorial that dated to the 1960s, using the donation to celebrate the company's 100th year in business.

The Capitol, which last got new lights in 1990, is next in line. Its system consists of 38 1,000-watt metal halide lamps mounted on rooftops over the House and Senate wings. The lamps burn for about eight hours a night and consume more than 122,000 kilowatt-hours of power each year. The annual electric bill is nearly $15,000.

Daniel P. Beard, the House's chief administrative officer, said that if House and Senate leaders give final approval, new lighting could be installed by year's end. Officials do not yet have an estimate for the cost of the project.

"You have the most recognized building in America, and lighting it with new energy-efficient lighting has tremendous symbolic value," Beard said. "We're not going to drastically cut our energy consumption, but it will have a modest impact, and I think it will help promote the energy-efficient-lighting industry, which is in all of our best interests."

But converting to a more eco-friendly system has turned out to be expensive -- and the work has just begun. Beard's office rejected two lower bids to recommend awarding the design contract to the Lighting Practice of Philadelphia, located in Brady's district. The contract covers no installation costs.

In a Feb. 19 memo to Brady, whose committee approved the award, Beard said that of the seven bidders for the contract, the Philadelphia company offered "the best value and greatest opportunity for success." In an interview, he said the two lowest bidders were eliminated because they did not provide enough information for his office to assess their financial health.

A Brady spokesman said there was nothing improper about the selection process. The committee "has a procedure, and the procedure was adhered to," said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee.

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