- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Maryland officials announced yesterday that the state will enter into union-supported labor agreements for its share of construction on the nearly $2.2 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, said in a statement he agreed with the Maryland Department of Transportation's (MDOT) decision to start negotiations with local and national building trade unions.

"I am confident that we will be able to keep this large and important project on track," Mr. Glendening said, acknowledging that the region's tight labor markets "have already driven up construction prices significantly."

But four local House Republicans are urging Mr. Glendening, a longtime supporter of union causes, to abandon the project labor agreements (PLAs), saying the agreements will cause cost overruns.

Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, and Robert Ehrlich Jr. and Constance A. Morella of Maryland said they oppose his plan to use PLAs in building the 12-lane span, especially after they worked to secure an additional $600 million in federal funds for the project.

"It's really going to compound problems because that additional money was meant to cover the additional costs," Mr. Wolf said. "And they won't be able to come back to Congress."

Two companies commissioned by the Maryland State Highway Administration to study using a PLA the engineering firm of Parsons Transportation Group and the law firm of Shawe & Rosenthal said labor agreements would supply a work force and keep extra construction costs to a minimum.

MDOT spokesman Jack Cahalan said state officials aim to have agreements with the unions locked up within 30 days.

The highway administration will began soliciting bids today for up to $170 million worth of foundation work that will be done solely by Maryland.

Edward C. Sullivan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, applauded Mr. Glendening's decision, adding that he's sure the governor will support other proposals by union negotiators.

Virginia and Maryland each have committed $200 million to the project, and Congress set aside $1.5 for construction after much wrangling by local members of Congress for an extra $600 million.

Mr. Wolf said Congress has no other funds for the project, meaning that the states will have to cut back on other projects or raise taxes if the labor agreements increase costs.

"We went following hat-in-hand begging to get the additional money as a delegation, and as a result we need to be very careful how we spend it," Mr. Ehrlich said.

PLA critics say a study issued last week by University of Baltimore economics professor Armand J. Thieblot paints an accurate picture of the agreements' effects on costs. Mr. Thieblot says PLAs would add $150 million to the project's cost.

Lisa Boepple, Mrs. Morella's spokeswoman, said PLAs will shut out local workers. "It would exclude over 80 percent of the work force and ignores common sense of fair and open competition."

Mr. Davis said Mr. Glendening, who pushed through a bill this year requiring higher union wages on school construction projects, is just making a political score.

"I think most taxpayers in Virginia and Maryland understand that this is less about a labor agreement than a political shakedown," he said.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III has said his state will not use PLAs in its share of the project.

"Virginia has no intention of paying, directly or indirectly, for Maryland's decision to inflate labor costs through a [PLA]," said Shirley J. Ybarra, Virginia's secretary of transportation.

Miss Ybarra said PLAs could be a key sticking point in negotiations between Virginia and Maryland and the federal government over a deal to cover cost overruns. "This probably doesn't help us," she said of Maryland's PLA plan.

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