The White House Big Dig is finally wrapping up, but the Big Reveal is proving to be a pretty big letdown.
After nearly two years and $86 million worth of noisy and disruptive construction, the West Wing has emerged from its visual seclusion remarkably unchanged. And deep underground, whatever has been built there remains shrouded in mystery.
Plus, if you ask what the next phase is in this massive, four-year project, the official answer is "TBD" — to be determined.
The construction project — officially a long overdue upgrade of White House utilities — began in September 2010 with the excavation of a huge, multistory pit in front of the West Wing, wrapping around to include West Executive Avenue, the street that separates the White House from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. A tall, green construction fence sprang up that blocked America’s most famous office complex from public view.
But now the fence has come down, revealing the familiar whitewashed sandstone facade and the lone Marine guard who stands watch at the entrance to the West Wing lobby.
Bulldozers have covered up the hole. Contractors have repaved the asphalt driveway. National Park Service crews are mostly finished re-grading, re-sodding and replanting. Their goal has been to return the area to its original appearance.
So what, exactly, did all the digging, hammering, welding and concrete-pouring accomplish?
The General Services Administration, which oversaw the work, said it was to replace aging water and steam lines, sewers, storm sewers and electrical wiring conduits. Heating, air conditioning and fire control equipment also are being updated, officials said.
However, what reporters and photographers saw during the construction appeared to go well beyond that: a sprawling, multistory structure whose underground assembly required truckload after truckload of heavy-duty concrete and steel beams.
The GSA maintains this structure is merely "facilitating" the utility work. But neither the agency nor the administration will elaborate on its function. Last year, when the project began, GSA officials denied the construction was for additional office space or another bomb shelter. The existing White House bunker, known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, is under the East Wing and dates to the Roosevelt administration.
The GSA went to great lengths to keep the work secret, not only putting up the fence around the excavation site but ordering subcontractors not to talk to anyone and to tape over company info on trucks pulling into the White House gates.
Meantime, for most of those who work in the West Wing, the project has been a huge headache. Sometimes literally.
It’s meant shouting to be heard over jackhammers and backhoes, and long walks on arching ramps to circumvent the extensive work zone. The GSA even built a temporary concrete-and-steel platform to elevate TV reporters and their cameras so the White House North Portico could still be seen over the fence. The platform, like the fence, is now gone. And no one’s happier than West Wing denizens whose windows were blocked off.
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