"The West Wing of the White House is all-but disappearing behind an $86 million building project that is going to last for years.

And a mysterious tunnel is being built, fuelling speculation that a secret underground lair is what's really under construction.

In recent weeks, an expanding and sometimes ear-splitting zone of excavation has enveloped the mansion's famous office wing."

"Heavy equipment and metal-and-concrete superstructures are part of the vast construction project.

The front door and the Marine who guards it have disappeared behind a high green-and-white plywood fence. From Pennsylvania Avenue, all that's visible is a sliver of second-floor roof line.

For years to come, the front yard at 1600 Pennsylvania will remain a noisy building site, say officials in charge of the White House's 'Big Dig'.

Officials describe the job as an overdue upgrade of underground utilities. That includes water and sewer lines, electrical conduits, pipes for chilled and hot water and steam heat systems, and storm sewers. Heating, air conditioning and fire alarm systems are being replaced. Some systems are getting backups."

To build the tunnel, crews have poured in huge concrete pylons, put up retaining walls and brought in truckloads of steel beams.

The construction site has expanded from in front of the West Wing around to the side and across a parking lot to the next-door Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The General Services Administration, which is supervising the work, has denied the tunnel is a new shelter - just an access to the utilities.

Spokesman Sahar Wali said the steel and concrete is needed 'to create enough space and a pathway for replacement of the new utilities infrastructure at the proper depth and location'.

She said the construction was not putting in place long-standing plans for underground office space or an underground driveway entrance.

Of course, there would not be much point in telling everyone about building a secret tunnel (after all, the emphasis is on secret).

West Wing officials, especially those with offices nearest the construction, have endured painful spells of drilling and banging. Holding meetings and doing routine business amid the din has become a major challenge.

Josh Earnest, a deputy in the press office, found himself doing phone interviews on President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech as a worker jackhammered concrete inches from his window. The next day, when a second jackhammer arrived, he phoned project managers to beg for a reprieve. The work was postponed.

'They have been very respectful of the fact that we still have to keep an important operation running here,' Mr Earnest said.

Visitors to the West Wing now must navigate a temporary walkway that curves behind Pebble Beach — as the zone where TV reporters do stand-ups is called — and arches over the digging before swinging out of view behind the construction fence.

Foreign leaders arriving by motorcade often have to use another entrance. Beyond the main West Wing driveway, the construction has shut down one entrance leading to the White House residence quarters that's used for deliveries of flowers, produce and other supplies.

That fencing has cost some of the most coveted offices in America their sweeping views.

Former press secretary Robert Gibbs said: 'I've threatened to go spray paint it and make it a little bit more aesthetically pleasing.'

For most of those who work in the White House complex, the noise is the worst part. In addition to the jackhammers and bulldozers, a heavy crane that drills large earthen cores is the biggest offender, shivering and clanking as it shakes off dirt after each bore. TV correspondents facing nearby cameras have to shout to be heard.

The noise won't be going away any time soon.

The West Wing dig is but the first step in a multiphase $376 million project that will eventually progress across the White House grounds — and last for a total of four years."

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