- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2001

Union-only make-work rules are jamming up construction of the new Wilson Bridge. Because the bridge connects Maryland and Virginia, the two states must agree on a variety of things related to the project, including the way the work will be performed and how it will be paid for. Virginia has a problem with Maryland's Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which give priority to higher-cost union workers and which Virginia believes will lead to delays and cost-overruns that Virginia taxpayers will end up having to pay for via the already-strapped general fund or via new taxes. Maryland refuses to budge on the PLAs, claiming they will make the work progress more smoothly and efficiently. Given the history of uncompetitive, union-only contracting, however, this seems unrealistic.

The failure to reach some sort of compromise has led to an impasse that could hold up construction indefinitely a daunting thought considering the area's already terrible transportation situation. The scheduled completion date for the new bridge is 2006, but it appears doubtful that target will be met in view of Maryland's intransigence.

Virginia Delegate James O'Brien, Fairfax Republican, has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to hold back Virginia's contribution of funds to the project some $200 million until Maryland revokes its PLAs. However, state Democratic lawmakers are fighting the bill, creating a sub-struggle over the bridge that will only add to the already contentious atmosphere. "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,'' he told this newspaper's Stephen Dinan. Mr. Plum is a supporter of the PLAs.

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers in Congress are threatening to hold up the federal government's remaining unspent share of the costs some $1.3 billion because of the PLAs. Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore is adamant, however, and insists that his state will not allow any of the funds allotted for construction to be spent on cost- overruns incurred by Maryland.

A final piece of meat to throw into the stew is the apparent maneuvering by Maryland's Democratic governor, Parris N. Glendening, and officials of the outgoing Clinton administration, to rush the project in order to stave off any attempt by the incoming Bush administration to nix the PLAs. According to a Jan. 24 report in this newspaper, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, 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. Glendening were "trying to rush this thing" in order to protect the union-only rules. Mr. Ehrlich claimed that Mr. Glendening and Mr. Clinton "urged" the Federal Highway Administration official responsible for reviewing the Wilson Bridge Plan to approve the PLAs before George W. Bush was sworn-in as president. Spokesmen for Mr. Glendening deny any attempt was made to rush approval of the project in order to protect the PLAs.

As the politicians wrangle, the day when relief is at hand from the appalling congestion at the current Wilson Bridge "choke point" may be further away than we imagined or hoped. All because of the insistence by Maryland Democrats that padding union payrolls is more important than getting to work on a desperately needed bridge.

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