Burrowing our way to security

June 6, 2022 12:02 am

Multiple construction zones surround the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va, June 3, 2022. A new tunnel will connect the Capitol with the new General Assembly building. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

They’re digging a big trench through Capitol Square in Richmond where a steel-reinforced concrete tunnel will be constructed as a secure portal for legislators, staffers and the public between the handsome new General Assembly office tower and the Capitol – the temple to democracy designed by Thomas Jefferson.

You can’t miss it. Construction fencing shrouds an earthen gash being cut through the heart of the seat-of-government grounds inside which massive machines move tons of soil and sink support pilings deep into the earth.

When it’s completed, likely sometime next year, it will allow the state’s elected legislators to move safely between their offices to the House and Senate chambers and back – a concession, at least in part, to our increasingly angry and violent national ethos.

With it, I fear, a cherished part of Capitol Square’s essential character will be forever lost.

The roughly 12-acre preserve where the primary institutions of Virginia government are based is its own small town in the middle of a city, and that is one of the reasons I dearly loved going to work there every day.

Who wouldn’t? It’s a remarkable garden in Virginia’s long growing season. Its habitues know each other and enjoy an easy, friendly rapport. When time allows, they stop and chat, sometimes for quite a while on slow days. In the busy season, people go about their business intently, sometimes pitching in to help out where help is needed, but the underlying grace and pleasantness remain.

Visitors and tourists feel it, too, whether it’s constituents visiting from a far corner of Virginia, a tour bus full of retirees from Missouri listening to guides explain the history that fairly drips from every wall, or Hampton Roads fourth-graders on a field trip. They are struck by the approachability not just of the docents walking them through living history but the amicable air of the staff who make the place tick.

Step just one block away – be it Broad Street to the north or Main Street to the south – and you sense the difference, an increased sort of impersonal, all-business impatience.

For more than 13 years as I showed up for work in the press filing quarters of the Capitol or, for two years, the Patrick Henry Building which houses the commonwealth’s governor and his cabinet, I marveled at the rare privilege of practicing journalism on-scene there.

I was back on the Square last week for the first time since before the pandemic for a meeting in the Patrick Henry Building, and it felt like coming home. Everywhere, I ran into old friends – hearty hugs and handshakes, catching up on each other’s lives. I noticed how much some things changed even as so much stayed the same.

Tunnel construction began in December as a massive project to raze and rebuild the legislative office tower known as the General Assembly Building, or “GAB” to regulars, headed down the stretch toward conclusion on the northwestern corner of Capitol Square. The new GAB is expected to open this year, but the tunnel is not due for completion until sometime in 2023.

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The need for the $25 million tunnel project, which will allow people passing from the General Assembly building to the Capitol to avoid having to go through another security checkpoint, is clear to anyone who recalls the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent, insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, intent on subverting the legitimate outcome of a presidential election and hijacking the constitutional process of peacefully transferring power.

Actually, one need look no deeper into history than the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, two weeks ago and Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week (at least as of noon Friday) to justify a secure passageway for the elected trustees of the commonwealth’s government. The unreasoning rage that poisons so many in our society, their growing contempt for the rule of law, and the ease with which they obtain modern infantry rifles built to inflict death at industrial scale could put policymakers at risk on a leisurely stroll between their offices and the Capitol, less than the distance from home plate to the deep centerfield wall in a Major League park.

Those walks have been important. It’s when legislators emerge from their musty offices and conference rooms where they cut deals and speak in the acronym-chocked bureaucratese during winter General Assembly sessions into the fresh air to interact with real people – well-wishers, old friends, voters, lobbyists, journalists, groups demonstrating for or against this or that – as they head to the House and Senate chambers for daily floor sessions.

There are times when I’ve made that walk with them, conducting interviews on the way. I’ve seen legislators visibly moved by those groups: revulsion at grisly photos of fetuses shoved in their faces by abortion opponents; gun-rights advocates with intimidating battlefield weapons slung over their shoulders; several hundred women lining both sides of every walkway and the access road that loops around the Capitol, standing silently, shoulder-to-shoulder, in an unforgettable protest to a 2012 bill that would have required an invasive ultrasound procedure of any woman seeking abortion.

Perhaps most unforgettable: families of those killed and wounded by an enraged student gunman at Virginia Tech. That day, tears spilled, chins quivered.

None of that can happen in a tunnel. But that’s the country we’ve made for ourselves.

There was a time, as late as the first years of this century, when Virginia’s Capitol threw its doors wide open to all who wanted to visit. Literally. On cool, sunny autumn afternoons, it was not uncommon to see the west, north and east doors propped open to let the fresh, crisp breeze wash through the ground floor. That ended on Sept. 11, 2001. Magnetometers and pat downs became the rule for visitors. Electronically encoded access cards were required for employees, vendors and the press.

Tunnels are not new, either. In the late 1930s, a sprawling subterranean labyrinth was built that linked the Executive Mansion, the Capitol, what’s now the Oliver Hill Building, the Patrick Henry Building (then the new State Library), the Medical College of Virginia and the “State Highway Department” before it was known as the Department of Transportation. There could be no connection to the General Assembly Building because it did not exist then. On the site stood a theater where a live country music radio program originated each Saturday night in the 1940s and ‘50s.

There was debate from 2001 to 2004 about building a tunnel to link the old GAB to the Capitol as plans took shape to rehab and restore the Capitol from its foundation to its roof and add the Extension underneath the South Lawn. Budget hawks of the day prevailed, arguing that it would be an extravagant and elitist perk of power that separated legislators from the people. It didn’t make the cut when ground was broken on the renovation and Extension project that began in the spring of 2005. The tunnel under construction now will open into the upper level of the Extension, which is closed until the project is completed.

Once the work is all done, I hope those in whom Virginia voters invest their trust won’t reflexively abandon their open-air walks – except maybe during snowstorms or the like. I hope they continue to interact with people – be they friends, visitors, lobbyists, even reporters – on those walks. I hope they don’t make the hardened burrow their default choice.

Most of all, I pray that no one ever gives them reason to.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]