Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Capitol Visitors Center's Final Price Tag = $621 Million

The Washington Times ran an editorial last week that excoriated the long over-due and fabulously over-budget Capitol Visitors Center, Washington DC's latest manifestation of the Edifice Complex.

See: The Last GOP Boondoggle, most of which I've quoted below.

It is a breathtaking vision of marble and glass, eye-catching exhibits, fountains, lanterns, seat-walls and woodwork. It fills 580,000 square feet and its price tag is astronomical - $621 million. [TSB note: that makes it only a little less expensive than the new U.S. Embassy Complex in Baghdad, or roughly the same cost as six new U.S. embassies of the normal type] Its original price tag was $265 million. All that money for what was supposed to be used as a holding zone for visitors waiting to tour the Capitol.

Of course, upgrades were needed to modernize the aging visitors center, ensure handicap accessibility and accommodate an increase in visitors - tripling from 1 million in 1970 to nearly 3 million today. But are two, 450-seat theaters really necessary? Or a 500-seat eatery?

The acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, defended the treasure, saying: "I don't think it's extravagant." Yet, the new structure is so over-the-top, NBC's Nightly News deemed it a "Fleecing of America" back in 2006 even before the final costs were tallied. Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey said: "Pitiful oversight, exploding costs and embarrassing results."

While it's still among the cheapest attractions in the nation's capital, being free, the improved Capitol Visitors Center is not the best use of taxpayer money.

Actually, the Capitol Visitors Center is a handy symbol of why conservatives turned on the once Republican-led Congress - a pointless project on auto-pilot, hoovering up tax-dollars, without any protest from the solons who are supposed to be guarding the people's purse.

Many public building projects end up exceeding their schedules and budgets, but the Capitol Visitors Center is in a class by itself. From its modest original concept as a visitor screening and holding area, the scope of work just kept metastasizing like an architectural form of Kudzu (the vine that ate the South) until the Center finally filled all the space available for it on Capitol Hill.

There were no checks-and-balances at work here, unlike normal U.S. government construction projects, in which the Congress funds and the Executive implements. In this case, the U.S. Congress funded, implemented, and conducted oversight (or not) all by itself. The result was a monument to Congress, but not the kind they intended.

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