- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia legislators could withhold the state's share of the cost for replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge until Maryland revokes an agreement to use unionized labor for most of the bridge project.

Delegate James K. Jay O'Brien Jr., Fairfax Republican, is sponsoring a bill to hold back the bridge money, arguing that Virginia's General Assembly should take a stance on the project and make sure Virginia isn't saddled with overruns or beset by delays because of the agreement.

But the bill isn't gaining widespread support from other Northern Virginian legislators, who say it is inartfully written and will delay the replacement bridge.

"It's a bit of mischief that project does not need. Our commuters need relief," said Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat. "It's a bit astonishing, and a little disappointing, to realize when there's a choice between helping Northern Virginia commuters and sticking your finger in the eye of organized labor that some legislators would go for the latter."

The bridge replacement project will cost an estimated $2.2 billion. The federal government has committed to spending $1.5 billion, and Maryland and Virginia have committed to $200 million each. Because most of the bridge straddles the Potomac River, which belongs to Maryland, Maryland will oversee construction except for the roads and interchanges in Virginia.

Earlier this month, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening finalized a project labor agreement (PLA), which guarantees that a large portion of the work will go to unionized contractors. Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, argues that the agreement will keep a steady stream of highly qualified workers.

But opponents say labor agreements can drive up costs and charge that Mr. Glendening is simply repaying unions for their political help.

Republicans in the U.S. House have threatened to hold up the federal government's remaining unspent share of the cost because of the labor agreement, and Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, has said he won't spend any of Virginia's share of the money on cost overruns incurred by Maryland.

Mr. Gilmore's administration is still reviewing Mr. O'Brien's bill, but Mr. O'Brien said he wants to put the force of law behind what Mr. Gilmore already has said he wants to do.

"Because this is a joint project, my reaction to the governor of Maryland's action is that he should not be able to encumber Virginia's money," Mr. O'Brien said.

Mr. O'Brien said he is willing to consider an amendment that would prevent the project from being slowed down by his bill. But other lawmakers said that amounts to gutting the bill, and said they aren't ready to risk delaying the bridge over Maryland's labor agreement.

"I don't think the issue's important enough for me to stop the project," said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican.

He and other Republicans generally were opposed to the PLA, but willing to accept Mr. Gilmore's solution as the best balance between protecting Virginia's interests and getting a bridge built.

"This is a matter better left to the negotiations of the executive," said Delegate John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican.

But some Democrats said they don't see why there's so much fuss over PLAs themselves.

"I don't think [this bill] is needed, and frankly I know of no evidence that a project labor agreement will increase the costs," said Delegate Robert D. Hull, Fairfax Democrat.

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