WASHINGTON – The Glendening administration applauded a federal judge’s ruling Wednesday that the White House cannot ban project labor agreements, a sticking point in one of the largest portions of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge reconstruction.
State officials said the Federal Highway Administration has signed off on all of what could be a $500 million contract for the bridge’s superstructure, except for the project labor agreement. Such agreements require contractors to comply with union-type work rules and unions, in exchange, pledge not to strike.
Shortly after taking office, President Bush signed an executive order banning the agreements. But a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington overturned Bush’s order.
“We’re hoping that this ruling is a turning point so we can move forward on the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. “We are ready to use a project labor agreement that we believe is an effective management tool for a project of this size.”
Officials with the Federal Highway Administration could not be reached Wednesday to comment on their refusal to sign off on the project labor agreement portion of the bridge project. White House officials did not return phone calls seeking comments on Sullivan’s ruling.
The federal government will pay the bulk of the $2.4 billion project. Maryland manages the contracts for the foundation and superstructure of the bridge over the Potomac River, because the state’s border extends to the Virginia side of the river. Maryland and Virginia each handle construction of interchanges for their sides of the bridge.
Contracts for the first two phases of the project — the $15 million dredging completed last year and the $125 million foundation work now under way — were not negotiated using projected labor agreements.
But Maryland included the agreements when it issued requests for superstructure bids in August. Bids were originally due in October, but that deadline was moved back to Nov. 29 at the request of contractors.
Cahalan said there is no time to waste in replacing the aging bridge that carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac.
“Every day that we delay now is one more day that those people in 190,000 vehicles people have to sit in congestion,” he said. “Our goal is to get this project moving so we can deliver this bridge for the people of this region.”
Labor unions also criticized the administration for its failure to act, noting that Wednesday’s ruling merely formalized a preliminary injunction the judge issued in August.
“We think the Federal Highway Administration is in contempt of the judge’s order,” said Edward C. Sullivan, president for Building and Construction Trades of the AFL-CIO. “They should have released the funds when he issued the preliminary injunction.
“They’re dragging their feet not to go along with it,” he said. “We have projects all over the country that haven’t had to go through the rigors of the Wilson Bridge project.”
Although critics of project labor agreements say they favor unions, Cahalan said non-union labor can still be used.
“The contractor would have to agree to the project labor agreement, but in no way does it preclude non-union labor,” he said.