Monumental folly

December 20, 2004

BEING ABLE TO say "We told you so" is not nearly as satisfying as it's cracked up to be. Particularly in the case of the monstrous fiasco that has been perpetrated upon the U.S. Capitol in the guise of a visitors center.

As we anticipated, estimated costs for the project are racing toward $1 billion after repeated revisions; the grand opening - originally scheduled to coincide with next month's presidential inauguration - has been delayed for at least two years.

Clearly, it's far too soon to know whether the enormous underground structure three-quarters the size of the Capitol itself will improve visitor access to the historic home of the legislative branch of government, or impede it, as we feared. But access is certainly being impeded by the construction - and will continue to be indefinitely.

Some accommodation to better screen visitors probably had to be made after a madman shot his way into the Capitol in 1998, and then the building was named as a likely target of the terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those changes could have been accomplished, though, with one or two small, unobtrusive structures. Instead, the architect of the Capitol, Alan M. Hantman, chose to build a monument for the ages, encouraged by a handful of congressional leaders eager for more space in which to expand their empire. Most other lawmakers were barely aware of plans for the project until the gracefully landscaped East Lawn disappeared into a giant hole.

Now, Mr. Hantman is under fire from Congress' Government Accountability Office for low-balling contract estimates and other management mistakes that have already doubled the original $265 million price tag - with more boosts certain to come. But he is to some degree a convenient scapegoat for all the lawmakers who failed to perform their watchdog responsibility.

There's no solace in finding our misgivings about the project confirmed, because we're stuck with it. Congress can hardly leave a half-finished structure sitting in a big, gaping pit (irresistible as that metaphor may be to congressional budget critics).

Instead, lawmakers should finally get engaged, making sure the remaining work is done well but efficiently - and remembering when there's a choice to make on scale that less is usually better than more.

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