Senate still doesn't know how much Centre Block reno will cost
And the pandemic could drive up the final price tag
The Senate's powerful internal economy committee met today to consider the Red Chamber's share of Centre Block's renovation — but for the second time in two months, the officials briefing them could not cite a cost for the project.
Work continues on a decade-long project to renovate and restore the Centre Block in Ottawa, which contains the House of Commons, the Senate and the Library of Parliament.
Two months ago, just before the pandemic crisis hit, MPs were reviewing the scope of renovations on their side of the Centre Block.
Public Services Minister Anita Anand told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee that they would get a costing of the renovation options for the House of Commons within a few weeks.
Today, more than two months later, the project's leaders — and not the minister herself — appeared before senators.
'So many variables'
Rob Wright, the assistant deputy minister for Public Services, is leading the entire project. He told senators that it is "very difficult to create the cost estimates at this point for a single element, an important element such as the visitor welcome centre" because there are "still so many variables."
Wright offered to draw up some cost estimates and bring them to senators.
In a statement later provided to CBC News by Anand's office, Public Services and Procurement Canada stated that its officials "are working to provide the PROC committee with the initial cost estimates for the welcome centre and the House of Commons chamber," and that those details would be shared "in the coming weeks."
On Friday, Independent Sen. Eric Forest, a member of the internal economy committee, contacted CBC News to say he was troubled by Thursday's presentation on the renovations, particularly the lack of detail on the projected costs of the project.
"I will be contacting the (public services) minister's office to request that she re-appear before (the committee) to explain this lack of clarity," Forest wrote in an email.
Watch: Rob Wright questioned by senators on renovation costs
Options being considered include multiple entrances
The Senate is considering three separate renovation options based on the planned size of three underground committee rooms and a multipurpose room for receptions.
Those options are contained within a much larger project: the second phase of the Centre Block's welcome centre, which will contain the Senate's committee rooms and provide security screening and services for tours.
The Senate Chamber will retain its current dimensions during the renovation. The 105 seats in the Red Chamber are assigned by the Constitution and any changes would require negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces.
In an exchange with Yonah Martin, a Conservative senator from British Columbia, Wright pointed out an issue with the newly renovated West Block.
Public visitors to the West Block now use an underground entrance, where they are screened by security before entering the building.
"It is not an intuitive entry to the West Block, over these next several years" while the Centre Block is being renovated, Wright said. "One of the factors that have been considered is having multiple entries may complicate wayfinding for visitors to the Hill."
Wright also told senators there's no "unanimity" among the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Protective Service and the Parliamentary Library on whether to have three entrances or just one.
Wright told senators that security officials have told him that the number of entrances wouldn't affect the level of security — but having three entrances would increase staffing costs.
The Senate might prefer its own entrance, due to its independent role and the fact that it hosts diplomatic functions.
The pandemic's effects
An infill option for the Centre Block's east courtyard is also being considered to gain some space for offices.
Conservative Sen. Elizabeth Marshall from Newfoundland and Labrador asked Wright if the pandemic could affect the project's budget.
"There are some impacts on productivity, additional efforts to compartmentalize the site, additional wash stations, additional lavatory facilities, additional PPE equipment, as you can imagine, on the construction site," Wright said, adding that the government has received letters from industry reporting "a five per cent impact" on anticipated costs for federal projects.
Watch: How the pandemic is affecting the renovation
Several senators stressed that they wanted to see the renovated structures made fully accessible. Public Services staff assured them that's part of the plan, and that the galleries in the Senate chamber would be reduced from 274 to about 200 seats to comply with modern building codes.
Also on the horizon is a tunnel system connecting the buildings on Parliament Hill with those on the other side of Wellington Street.
This may be integrated in the Block 2 renovation project for the group of buildings facing Parliament Hill.
Senators were told that the Block 2 architectural competition is set to open shortly and will have Indigenous representatives on the jury.
This is important because the former U.S. Embassy at 100 Wellington street is being restored for use by Indigenous, Inuit and Métis groups and the building hasn't been able to open yet due to a dispute with the Algonquin nation.
The Centre Block closed in early 2019 for renovations which will take at least a decade to finish.