Monday, February 5, 2001

The next phase of construction on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge has been delayed at least two weeks because Maryland’s plan to use union labor agreements to build the $2.2 billion span has not been given a green light by the federal government.

Bids on $150 million worth of foundation work on the new 12-lane span were to have been submitted this week, said Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan.

But the deadline for submitting the bids, according to an MDOT document obtained by The Washington Times, has been pushed back to Feb. 22, which would delay the start of the crucial phase of construction.

That delay is because either the Federal Highway Administration or Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta must approve Maryland’s plans to use Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), Mr. Cahalan has told The Times.

“It could impact that bid deadline,” Mr. Cahalan said Thursday. “The contractors have to know under what terms they are bidding.”

Advertisements for bids on the foundation work went out in November, and contractors were told they would have to operate under union rules and pay union wages.

Mr. Cahalan said Maryland is not letting the threat of an executive order banning PLAs deter the state’s plan to use them.

“This is one more item that you have to deal with, and you deal with it when it comes down the pike,” Mr. Cahalan said.

PLA opponents say such agreements drive up construction costs unnecessarily; supporters say PLAs ensure high-quality performance with few labor-related delays and disagreements.

Maryland and Virginia have pledged $200 million each for the six-year project and must seal a financing deal detailing how they will absorb cost overruns in order to get the remaining $1.3 billion Congress has approved for the bridge.

Congress released part of the money $170 million last summer for Maryland to begin dredging and foundation work in the Potomac River.

Last month, The Washington Times reported that officials in Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s office and in the Clinton administration had tried to rush federal approval of the PLAs, fearing a Bush administration would reject them.

Calls to both the highway administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation were not returned. Sources close to the project say the foundation work may not be the only thing delayed by the dispute.

The lack of an agreement among the states and the federal government could delay future advertisements for contracts, some of which are supposed to go out by the end of February to start building Maryland’s Interstate 295 interchange near the bridge.

Negotiations between the two states have been tense, with Glendening-led Maryland insisting PLAs be part of an agreement and Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, standing firm in opposition to the union-friendly deal.

“We’re confident the financial agreement is something all parties can live with,” Mr. Cahalan said.

Shirley J. Ybarra, Virginia’s transportation secretary, said she “didn’t want to negotiate [an agreement] in the newspaper,” adding that she and Maryland Transportation Secretary John Pocari would work to see that the bridge was built.

Virginia’s House of Delegates transportation committee on Friday approved a bill sponsored by Delegate James K. “Jay” O’Brien Jr., Fairfax Republican, banning the use of Virginia money to cover Maryland’s share of the bridge costs if PLAs are used.

“It does not have anything to do with Maryland entering into a PLA,” Mr. O’Brien said, adding that the bill is meant to show support of Mr. Gilmore’s hard-line stance against PLAs.

The bill now goes to the House for a full vote, which is expected today or tomorrow.

Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican, said he and others opposed to PLAs are banking on a Bush executive order, adding that Mr. Mineta and others in the Department of Transportation are “getting a lot of political pressure” to reject Mr. Glendening’s plan to use PLAs.

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