- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

It's not enough, apparently, that government officials are trying to replace one interstate drawbridge over the Potomac with another one. Now some are trying to increase the roughly $2 billion cost of a new Wilson Bridge to taxpayers in Virginia, Maryland and the United States by reducing the amount of competition available to do the job.

The Maryland Department of Transportation is studying, with the blessing of Gov. Parris Glendening, a plan to implement a so-called project labor agreement for bridge construction. In effect, such an agreement would guarantee the bulk of the work to organized labor in exchange for union promises not to strike or otherwise disrupt the project.

"God forbid that we have a union contractor working on this [bridge], and somebody strikes the project," Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration, told the Baltimore Sun. "If there's a way to make sure that doesn't happen, we're … interested in pursuing it." The way Mr. Williams wants to pursue it is to lock out of the project non-union contractors who could do the work at least as well as their union counterparts and, in all likelihood, at a lower price.

From the perspective of taxpayers, this is less a "labor agreement" than a political shakedown. Why sign a deal that pays a premium to union workers just to get them to abide by a construction contract to which, presumably, they have already agreed? Because of the implicit union threat to disrupt the work through stoppages or even violence if they don't get the money or work they want. In any other circumstance, one might call such a threat "extortion." In construction work, one calls it merely a project labor agreement.

The Glendening administration's plans to give in to organized labor's demands come at an awkward time for bridge proponents. Already there is a funding shortfall facing the project. Of its $2 billion estimated cost, the feds have agreed to pick up about $900 million, with Virginia and Maryland picking up $200 million each. State officials hope federal, not state, taxpayers will pick up the rest of the tab, including overruns that might result from union-only contracts.

Maryland "may be prepared to make some kind of deal with labor unions that will blow up the cost of this bridge," Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said in an interview with WTOP radio. "You have to be very serious about a $2 billion project, so that the people of Virginia aren't left holding the bag."

One would like to think that government officials in Maryland and in the nation's capital would be similarly concerned. Why leave taxpayers anywhere "holding the bag"? The best way to ensure they aren't is to allow all companies union and nonunion alike to compete for work on the Wilson Bridge.

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