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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story, including in today's print edition of The Washington Post, gave an incorrect Web address for the Capitol Visitor Center. The correct address is http://www.visitthecapitol.gov.

6 Years Later, Capitol Visitor Center Puts Out Long-Awaited Welcome Mat

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Three years behind schedule and almost $360 million above budget, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center prepares to open its doors to millions of tourists. Video by AP

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

What began six years ago as a huge, muddy cavity next to the U.S. Capitol and has since consumed thousands of tons of concrete, 400,000 carefully selected hunks of stone, and a million and one other bits of metal, marble and history, at a cost of $621 million, will be officially christened tomorrow.

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The only thing missing will be the people it was built to serve. There will be no visitors allowed at the grand opening of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. No couples from Kansas or kids from Kentucky, no seniors from Schenectady or tourists from Tokyo.

Not to worry.

Their moment will come later in the day, and it should last for generations. As many as 20,000 people are expected to pass through the ornate 580,000-square-foot center each day.

The basic belief that tourists needed safe, secure shelter from the elements as they waited to be guided through the Capitol grew, as with so many simple notions left in the hands of Congress, into something far grander: a subterranean edifice so magnificent that it alone is worth a visit.

The unveiling that will be marked with one Capitol Hill staple -- speechifying by politicians in an invitation-only morning ceremony -- already has achieved much else for which Congress is noted.

Take, for example, spending. What was proposed as a $71 million project in the early 1990s became a $265 million endeavor a decade later. By the time work got underway in 2002, the price tag was up to $368 million. Tomorrow, the ribbon will be cut on a $621 million project.

Then there was the congressional penchant for thinking big. The center's architects were ordered to include 150,000 square feet of "shell space" for some future day when Congress might need more office area. The finished center is about two-thirds the size of the entire Capitol.

Then there have been delays, a malady common to many federal endeavors. The project once was expected to be finished in time for the presidential inauguration -- in January 2005. As that date neared, the center was about half done, so the completion date was bumped ahead to spring 2006.

Six months after President Bush was sworn in for a second term, the Government Accountability Office reported that the architects and contractors were making so many mistakes and facing so many unexpected problems that March 2007 was probably more realistic. When that target rolled around without a ribbon-cutting, project officials were summoned before a House subcommittee to explain why, and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) scolded them for overseeing "a monument to government inefficiency, ineptitude and excessiveness."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said, "I've never seen a bigger boondoggle in my life. It's like they're playing with Monopoly money."

The center will be finished by summer 2008, lawmakers were told, and it will be spectacular.


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