- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

Maryland yesterday backed off plans to use union rules for the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, ending a yearlong dispute that threatened to delay its construction.
"Maryland is taking this significant step forward because we are focused on the ultimate goal replacing the Wilson Bridge and providing relief from the gridlock that frustrates more than 200,000 motorists who use the bridge every day," the Maryland Department of Transportation said in a statement.
The decision was prompted by the Federal Highway Administration's refusal Friday to allow a project labor agreement (PLA). The agency also threatened to withhold federal funding for the $2.4 billion reconstruction. The federal government will pay $2 billion of the cost, with Maryland and Virginia each paying $200 million each.
PLAs are contracts that require all companies on a job to follow common rules on wages, work schedules and safety standards. In exchange, the workers agree not to strike.
Maryland's move is a victory for Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the Bush administration, who opposed a PLA on the 12-lane bridge.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening supported a PLA, saying it would ensure skilled labor and prevent delays from labor disputes.
Federal Highway Administration officials said Maryland has not "proven that the proposed PLA would provide the benefit claimed."
Maryland is responsible for issuing the majority of contracts on the heavily traveled bridge, which spans the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.
The Maryland State Highway Administration plans to open bids for the contract on the twin six-lane spans today. The contract, valued at $450 million to $500 million, is the largest contract for the project. It was scheduled to be awarded in October until disputes about the PLA caused delays.
Mr. Gilmore and the Bush administration argued that PLAs drive up costs and unfairly favor unions.
In February, Mr. Bush issued an executive order prohibiting PLAs on federally funded construction jobs, including the Wilson Bridge. However, a federal judge ruled Nov. 7 that the order violated the National Labor Relations Act, a law that prohibits the government from interfering with labor negotiations and organizing. The Justice Department said it planned to appeal.
Maryland officials' decision yesterday ends the dispute and allows work to continue. Construction already is 21/2 months behind schedule.
"While we maintain a project labor agreement is one of the most effective management tools for projects of this extraordinary size and scope, the federal government has made it clear that it will not approve a PLA as part of the bid specifications on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project," the Maryland Transportation Department said.
Virginia officials said they were glad the dispute was over.
"Governor Gilmore is gratified that Governor Glendening made the decision," said Reed Boatright, spokesman for the Virginia governor. "It should serve to speed up the construction process and get this much-needed bridge under way without further delay."
U.S. Transportation Department officials refused to comment.
Maryland officials said they hope construction can continue in the spring under the original plan. The timetable calls for a 2004 opening of the first span, which is required before the old bridge can be demolished and the second span built. The second span is scheduled for completion by 2007. Dredging of the Potomac River has been completed.
Further delays would hurt Maryland because the federal funding includes a condition that each state pay for cost overruns on the contracts it oversees. Maryland is in charge of the contracts for the spans.
"We are particularly disappointed that the federal government expects the state to cover cost overruns but has prohibited us from using one of the management tools that would help avoid cost overruns," the Maryland Transportation Department said.
Construction contractors and Virginia officials disagreed, saying a PLA was likely to create cost overruns.
"The union-only PLA so avidly sought by Maryland would have driven up costs of this vital project while discriminating against local workers and potentially delaying completion of the project," the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group representing construction contractors, said in a statement yesterday.

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