- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

The Clinton administration and Maryland officials tried to rush federal approval of the state's plan for union-only labor on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, fearing the Bush administration would kill the plan, a member of Congress said.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican, said he and others involved in the $2.2 billion bridge project had received "indications" that officials of both then-President Clinton and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening were "trying to rush this thing."

Mr. Ehrlich and other congressional sources said Clinton and Glendening officials urged Nelson Castellanos, a Federal Highway Administration employee responsible for reviewing the plan, to approve Maryland's Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) before George W. Bush was sworn-in as president Saturday.

Mr. Castellanos was not available for comment yesterday.

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 $1.5 billion Congress has approved for the new 12-lane bridge.

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

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

Even if the states agree to a deal, the secretary of transportation must approve the plan, something the Bush administration likely will not do, sources said.

Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie said the state's plan to use PLAs was sent to the highway administration this month and there were no attempts to rush its approval.

"The state of Maryland stands by the PLA," Ms. Byrnie said. "We firmly believe that it enhances open competition, that ensures no work stoppages and benefits minorities."

The Washington Times reported two weeks ago that the National Black Chamber of Commerce criticized Mr. Glendening's plan for PLAs, saying the pacts amount to "de facto segregation."

Privately, Maryland officials have expressed worry about the Bush administration approving the PLAs.

"It would have been easier to get it approved by the Clinton administration," said a Maryland official who asked not to be identified. "It was their suggestion that we look into a PLA. Clinton urged Maryland to look at PLAs."

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday reiterated his opposition to relying on union labor to build the bridge, saying his state "will not be part" of a deal that includes PLAs.

"If we're not at the table, then we're not going to pay the bill for the overcosts," Mr. Gilmore said on his monthly call-in show, "Ask the Governor," on radio WTOP-1500 AM.

Mr. Gilmore, who is also the chairman of the Republican National Committee, urged the Bush administration to scrutinize Maryland's plan.

"I certainly do hope that we have an opportunity at least to state our case, which is that we don't approve of labor-only exclusive contracts," he said. "It's not the Virginia way."

Mr. Gilmore said after the show that Maryland's PLAs could lock out nonunion Virginia companies from bidding on contracts because the state has right-to-work laws.

"I think that's a serious problem," Mr. Gilmore said.

Right-to-work laws allow laborers to work in traditional union trades, such as pipefitting and construction, without first joining a union. Maryland does not have right-to-work laws.

The Times first reported two weeks ago that the remaining $1.3 billion in federal funds for the project are in jeopardy because of Maryland's insistence on using PLAs, which Virginia officials have said will torpedo any chance of reaching an agreement.

The Times also reported that Maryland officials have rejected a Virginia offer that would cap the total cost of building the bridge and require Maryland to pay for any cost overruns.

Both Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Mr. Ehrlich last week wrote separate letters to Mr. Castellanos asking him to reject Maryland's plan.

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