WASHINGTON – The Bush administration Friday refused to approve Maryland’s use of a project labor agreement on a contract for Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, the latest thrust in a battle that has already delayed bids on the project by two months.
Gov. Parris Glendening, whose administration has insisted on the union- friendly provision for the contract, said he was “disappointed and deeply concerned” about the decision by the Federal Highway Administration.
Aides said the state was still reading the 30-page FHA decision late Friday and that the administration had not decided what its next step would be.
The FHA decision on the $500 million superstructure contract came despite a judge’s ruling last month that the Bush administration could not issue a blanket ban on project labor agreements, or PLAs.
But the FHA ruling Friday applies only to the Wilson Bridge. It said that Maryland failed to show that the Wilson Bridge PLA met standards for evaluating such agreements on federally funded projects.
Administration approval of the PLA is vital, since the federal government will pay the bulk of the $2.4 billion bridge project.
Glendening, who has sparred for almost a year with the federal government on the issue, wants to use a PLA to require union-type work rules from contractors, in exchange for a union pledge not to strike.
Labor leaders denounced the decision as “completely phony and politicized” and vowed to fight it.
The FHA had signed off on all of the bridge’s $500 million superstructure contract, except for the project labor agreement, which forced the state to postpone a Nov. 29 bid deadline to Dec. 13. State transportation officials could not say whether Friday’s decision would push back the bid deadline yet again.
A spokesman for the American Automobile Association urged the federal and state governments to work out their differences.
“It’s vitally important that the federal and state governments get on the same page so we can continue progress on this essential project,” said Justin McNaull, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“Given all of the obstacles that can derail a public works project it’s important that disagreements between two levels of government not be one of them,” McNaull said. “Every additional week of delay is another that the region’s travelers waste in gridlock.”
The aging Wilson Bridge is the only drawbridge left in the interstate highway system. It is also a notorious bottleneck on the Capital Beltway and on Interstate 95, which it carries across the Potomac River.
Maryland manages the contracts for the foundation and superstructure of the bridge, since the state’s border extends to the Virginia side of the Potomac. Each state will handle construction of interchanges for its side of the bridge.
Contracts for the first two phases of the bridge replacement 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 in August, Maryland included project labor agreements when it issued requests for superstructure bids.