Congress Awards Funds for Next Phase of Capitol Visitor Center

Wed April 23, 2003 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Congress has awarded a $144- million contract for the next construction stage of the Capitol Visitor Center, a giant project promising improved security and tourist comfort but facing criticism aboutmounting costs.

The Architect of the Capitol said April 21 that the contract would go to the Washington-area office of Manhattan Construction Co., a Tulsa, OK.-based company that was recently involved in construction of the Capitol dome in Oklahoma City.

The visitor center, one of the most ambitious construction projects in the history of the Capitol, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2005 at a cost of $373.5 billion.

The three-level underground facility will give visitors access to food, displays, theaters and gift shops. It will also allow security checks to be conducted away from the main building.

Architect of the Capitol Alan M. Hantman, in announcing the contract, said workers had “endured one of the wettest winters on record to keep this project moving forward and be in a position to begin sequence two activities on schedule.”

But Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, earlier this month wrote Hantman, questioning his ability to manage the project without delays and cost overruns.

Obey said he was “disinclined” to sign off on a letter approving further spending on the project, threatening to block new construction.

Obey’s spokesman, David Sirota, said that after the current Easter recess Obey would talk to the Architect’s office about his concerns, which include creation of an $18-million contingency account that Obey described as a slush fund over which Congress would have no control.

When approved in 1999, the cost of the center was estimated at $265 million. Since then, Congress has approved an additional $70 million for House and Senate office space in the complex and another $38.5 million to enhance security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At a Senate hearing last month, Hantman said bids for the second phase of construction were 10 to 15 percent above government estimates, a cost increase he said was due to the high-priced Washington construction market.

The Architect’s office a year ago agreed to a $99-million contract for the first phase of construction, whichinvolves site demolition, excavation, foundation work and construction of a new truck service tunnel.

Currently about 300 truckloads, or 3,000 tons (2,700 t) of material are being removed every day from the site, located on the east plaza between the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

The second phase will include installation of electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, laying floors and stonework. The center is scheduled to be completed by December 2005, but parts of it may be available for theJanuary 2005, presidential inauguration ceremonies.