WASHINGTON – The Glendening administration conceded defeat Wednesday in its months-long battle with the federal government over union-friendly language in the largest contract for the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge replacement.
Maryland will move forward on the $400 million to $500 million contract for the bridge’s superstructure without requiring the “project labor agreement” it had long urged the Bush administration to accept.
State officials said they could not afford any more delays on the project. Bids on the superstructure contract, already postponed two months while the state and federal governments wrangled, will be opened Thursday. The state hopes to begin construction on the superstructure next spring.
“The most important consideration is moving toward the completion of this project in a timely manner and with a minimum of disruption to the lives of the people who use the bridge,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari in a prepared statement Wednesday.
The announcement came less than a week after the Federal Highway Administration refused to approve the contract as long as it included the project labor agreement. Federal approval of the contract is vital, since it will pay the bulk of the $2.4 billion bridge replacement project.
Gov. Parris Glendening had been insisting on a PLA, which requires union- type work rules from contractors, in exchange for a union pledge not to strike. His administration believed the labor provisions would have ensured safer working conditions and well-trained workers, while preventing cost overruns that the state would be responsible for covering.
“Maryland has accepted an extraordinary amount of responsibility,” said Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie. “We should have the right to use the management tools that we need to complete the project in a timely manner with a highly skilled workforce.”
The FHA refusal Friday to approve the superstructure contract came despite a judge’s ruling last month that the Bush administration could not issue a blanket ban on project labor agreements.
But the FHA said its latest ruling applied only to the Wilson Bridge. It said Maryland had failed to show that the Wilson Bridge PLA met standards for evaluating such agreements on federally funded projects.
The Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which successfully sued the federal government to overturn the blanket ban on PLAs, refused to comment Wednesday on Maryland’s decision. Last week, however, a union official had vowed to fight the FHA’s decision not to approve the Wilson Bridge PLA.
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.
Contracts for the first two phases of the project — the $15 million dredging already completed and the foundation work now under way at a cost of up to $130 million — were not negotiated using project labor agreements. But in August, Maryland included the project labor agreement language when it issued requests for superstructure bids.
A spokesman for the American Automobile Association said the region’s commuters were ready for work on the bridge to move forward.
“It’s vitally important that progress continue on the project,” said Justin McNaull, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman. “It’s important that disagreements over how to do the work don’t get in the way of getting the work done.”
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