- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Gridlock-weary area motorists got some bad news last week, when it was announced that large cost overruns on the new Wilson Bridge could further push back the oft-delayed completion date. Maryland transportation officials had estimated that the cost of completing the superstructure of the bridge would cost approximately $450-$500 million. But the sole bid to do the actual work came in at a remarkable $859.9 million, or almost twice as much as had been anticipated. The total cost at this point now stands at nearly $2.4 billion, and, so far, only the first few baby steps have actually been taken in terms of building anything. If a way can't be found to cut costs or find another contractor willing to do the work for the amount budgeted by state transportation authorities that may be as far as things go for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, gridlock threatens to effectively paralyze the region, with economic and human costs that are forbidding to contemplate.

What makes all this especially alarming is the fact that Maryland's insistence upon union-only work rules, known as project labor agreements (PLAs), makes it that much more unlikely a way will be found to reduce construction costs. PLAs require that all work be farmed out to union contractors, or that any workers involved in the work be governed by applicable union work and pay rules. Maryland's Democrat Gov. Parris N. Glendening fought outgoing Virginia Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore over the PLA issue, with Mr. Glendening arguing, rather hilariously, that the Wilson Bridge project could be done more cheaply and efficiently under PLAs, while Mr. Gilmore argued that a more open and free competitive bidding process would almost by definition result in a more efficient and less expensive undertaking. Unfortunately, and despite President Bush's intercession, Mr. Glendening and his "efficient" PLAs won out. The results are now clear for all to see.

The $859.9 million bid put in by a joint-venture company, Kiewit, Tidewater & Clark, was the only one submitted. It is likely that the PLA-only stipulation kept several would-be bidders away. These potential bidders might be able to do the work for less perhaps closer to the $450-$500 million budget allotted by Maryland officials. But they are locked out of the bidding process because of the PLA edict. Indeed, this is exactly what Ken Kobetsky, chief engineer for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told The Washington Post in an interview last week. He said the PLAs and attendant political difficulties, in addition to the financial aspects, limited the already small number of contractors capable of taking on such a formidable job. "As much controversy as that project's had, we know full well there will be a number of people watching very, very closely, " he told The Post.

Thanks to this latest imbroglio, the scheduled start date, which had been spring 2002, has now been pushed back at least five months. That means construction won't even begin on the main spans and superstructure until late summer or fall of the coming year. And that, of course, assumes the current impasse can be resolved expeditiously which is extremely unlikely unless the PLA/union-only stipulation can be relaxed or eliminated. That ought to be a no-brainer, but unfortunately for area motorists and the regional economy, brains are not a commonplace among certain of our area's elected officials.

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