8 October 2003

Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2003

Pork at the End Of the Tunnel?

Capitol's $10 Million Passageway Derided as a Classic Boondoggle


WASHINGTON -- As the federal deficit is widening, Congress is preparing to dig itself another hole -- a $10 million pedestrian tunnel connecting the U.S. Capitol to the Library of Congress across the street.

The tunnel is just one part of an elaborate $400 million-plus underground visitors' center being built on the Capitol's east lawn. With the center's price tag soaring -- at the same time that veterans' benefits, education and homeland-security budgets are being pinched -- some lawmakers are fighting the tunnel as a yawning example of congressional excess.

"The classic congressional pork and incompetence story," says Rep. Jack Kingston, the Georgia Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the project. He wants to nix the tunnel.

Originally, the idea behind the passageway was to help the Library of Congress, never a huge tourist draw, tap into the Capitol's bounty of visitors. The library's lavish 1897 Jefferson Building features elaborate mosaics and carvings and a 23-karat gold-plated vestibule -- all of which once prompted former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to exclaim, "How did you get a building like this? You don't have any czars."

Now, though, the tunnel's mission has changed: to that of a congressional escape route. Project officials revised the visitors' center plans extensively after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to strengthen the structure and improve the ventilation system. They also concluded that the tunnel could provide important protection to people fleeing the Capitol in case of, say, a biological assault.

"It's an extra egress that could be lifesaving," says Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican who initially didn't support the tunnel but changed his mind after getting security briefings.

Counters Mr. Kingston: "When someone says security, hold your checkbook."

Cost has always been a problem for the visitors' center. Republicans blocked the project in the early 1990s because they objected to paying $71 million for it. The idea was revived in 1998 for safety reasons, after a gunman killed two Capitol policemen as he shot his way into the building. By the time ground was broken in June 2000, the estimated cost had climbed to $265 million. But that didn't include the office space that the House and Senate has since added for itself, all the security improvements, and other cost overruns. Mr. Kingston predicts the project will cost more than $500 million.

Lawmakers in both chambers are starting to ask questions about the visitors' center, but their uneasiness comes a little late. The pit out front looks like the excavation site for a skyscraper. As the digging continues, the crews never know what they will find. One group hit a well during excavation of a slurry wall trench that dated to the 1790s. Six days of work turned into a five-week ordeal to break through the stone well and grout it to support special wall panels. Though the project is months behind schedule, one deadline can't be missed: The plaza overhead must be ready by the January 2005 inauguration to support the president's helicopter.

Supporters of the visitors' center insist that most of the overruns are justified and that a historic expansion shouldn't be done on the cheap. "The French hired I.M. Pei for the Louvre," says Sen. Bennett. "This is the U.S. Capitol. You can't nickel-and-dime it."

When the House and Senate were debating additional funding for the visitors' center this summer, the Architect of the Capitol's office, which is overseeing the project, included the tunnel on a list of features, along with a visitor orientation theater and an auditorium for members, that could be eliminated to save money. The architect also suggested the cafeteria and gift shop could be left unfinished and turned over to private operators. Total possible savings, including skimping on the exhibit space: $34 million, according to Mr. Kingston's tally. But in the end, no changes were made.

For at least 10 years, starting when the visitors' center was just talk, library officials lobbied for an underground connection between the Jefferson Building and the Capitol. Librarian of Congress James Billington told a Senate panel in June 2000 that the tunnel would help to draw in visitors, "even those who seldom use libraries." He also said the passageway would provide "all-weather access" for members who like to hold receptions and meetings at the library. Among his close allies in Congress: Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R., Alaska).

The Capitol is already connected to nearby congressional office buildings by a labyrinth of underground tunnels, all of them feeding into the basement under the House and Senate chambers. Another tunnel connects the Cannon House office building and one of the library's two annexes -- which are also linked to the Jefferson Building underground.

Rep. Kingston warns that, in addition to the tunnel's hefty price tag, it is "a disaster waiting to be dug" for engineering reasons. For instance, an underground Amtrak line that feeds into Union Station traverses the tunnel's route. The track is believed to be 20 feet below ground, more or less. No one knows for sure because, as Mr. Kingston says, "no one can find the blueprints."

It doesn't bode well that when construction workers were trying to reroute a waterline elsewhere on the site, they discovered that a different train track that was supposedly 18 feet underground was in fact two feet below the asphalt.

Then there are the buried utility lines, some ancient and poorly documented. According to descriptions provided to members of Congress, the tunnel will follow an L-shaped arc to dodge various obstacles. In terms of distance, it is expected to run about 600 feet. It may be shorter to walk outside the visitors' center at the Capitol and cross 1st Street to get to the library.

Such arguments aren't swaying many members. "You don't parse this security or that security," says Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, a Senate appropriator. "Besides," she adds, "I've been around this place long enough to know that if you delay things, you end up building them anyway."

Write to Shailagh Murray at shailagh.murray@wsj.com

Updated October 8, 2003