Dulles Rail Silver Line in Jeopardy Over Labor Pay Dispute

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(Washington, DC - WAMU) Loudoun County officials say Phase 2 of the Metro Dulles rail project known as the Silver Line may be delayed.  Phase 1 is expected to be completed in August 2013, but disputes over funding and the potential use of union labor are jeopardizing Phase 2, which would connect Reston, Va. to Dulles Airport and beyond into Loudoun County.

Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is now controlled by Republicans who have raised questions about the county’s commitment to the project.  Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R) tells the Washington Post, “There is a very legitimate and real chance that this project might not go forward.”

Among the contentious issues is a decision by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to provide bidding contractors a ten percent bonus on their technical evaluation scores if they choose to hire union construction workers through a project labor agreement (PLA).

The dispute pits Virginia Republicans who control the state's General Assembly against the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's (MWAA) Board of Directors and labor union leaders. The assembly members claim a decision by the MWAA violates Virginia's right-to-work law.

The Republican-led Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that threatened to withdraw the state's $150 million contribution, claiming the PLA discriminates against the state's non-union workforce. The legislation also claims the PLA will lead to out-of-state construction workers outnumbering Virginia's on the project, and increase the project's cost.

Gov. Bob McDonnell intends to sign the legislation, effective July 1. Virginia's construction workforce is 97 percent non-union.

If Virginia withdraws the $150 million contribution, tolls on the Dulles Toll Road could double to about $9 round-trip next January, according to MWAA CEO Jack Potter.

"The position that we have evolved to is a very reasonable position," Potter says. "I believe that it would be a real shame if this project were to be delayed because of the project labor agreement."

The dispute has left opposing sides claiming to be the true defenders of tax and toll payers.

Republican Dels. Barbara Comstock and Tim Hugo, the chief sponsors of the legislation, say big labor unions, namely the Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), influenced the adoption of the PLA. LiUNA accuses Republicans of doing the bidding of "anti-union" groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia.

In an interview at ABC Virginia headquarters, the association's president Patrick Dean denied charges of "anti-unionism."

"We believe at ABC that all competition should be free and open," says Dean. "Everyone should have the right to compete based on a fair price and quality work. We don't believe the government or any authority authorized by the government should pick winners and users."

Since the first year he ran for office, Hugo has received $1,500 in campaign contributions from the Associated Builders & Contractors of Virginia, which lobbied in favor of the bill that would withdraw the state's funding. From all general contractors, Hugo has received $12,250 since 2002.

"The money that ABC members and our association gives to elected officials to support their campaigns is minuscule compared to what the labor unions give to elected officials throughout the country and throughout Virginia," says Dean.

Hugo says donations by contractors did not influence his position whatsoever, and that his concern is with making sure union and non-union companies have a level playing field.

Since Comstock ran for office in 2009, she has received $1,500 in campaign contributions from the ABC of Virginia. From all general contractors, she's received $19,500 since 2009. Comstock also denied she was influenced by donors.

"That is absolutely false," she says. "We are doing the work for Virginia workers to make Virginia workers and Virginia taxpayers get the most out of their tax dollars."

A review of political contributions to Hugo and Comstock revealed that donations from contractors accounted for relatively small proportions of their campaign war chests.

Moreover, their donors have used both union and non-union workers over the years. For instance, the CEO of Bethesda-based Clark Construction, Peter Forster, has given Comstock $10,000, her largest individual donor from the general contracting industry. But Clark, which is expected to be among the bidders for Dulles Phase 2, has used varied workforces in many of its large projects.

In the view of Hugo and Comstock, the PLA, not general contractors, is the problem.

"My bill specifically says you can't discriminate against union or non-union, so everybody has to be treated equally," Comstock says. "I think the union workers have no problem competing equally. They are not afraid of this. It is the union bosses who want to control this and dictate this, get more money in their coffers. That's not money that will help Virginia taxpayers or Virginia workers."

In a statement released Feb. 21, MWAA defended its decision to adopt the PLA. It referred to MWAA's initial decision to make the PLA mandatory for contractors, a decision that was reversed after protests from Virginia lawmakers and some officials in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

The new approach to adopt a voluntary PLA did not satisfy MWAA's opponents. A letter sent to MWAA's chairman, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, as well as the Fairfax and Loudon county executives, urged the authority to reverse its decision.

"Right now what we are asking for is no discrimination in awarding the contract based on whether a company or contractor uses union or non-union labor," said Secretary Connaughton in an interview with WAMU.

"We want them to be focused on competency and cost. We do not want to see a requirement for unions or a prohibition against unions."

PLAs can increase the cost of public works projects 12 to 18 percent, according to studies conducted by the ABC of Virginia. Wages are not the issue, says Dean, but pension and health care costs are.

"If non-union companies work on the project, those companies have their own benefit programs, health and welfare pension programs," Dean says. "They would have to pay benefits into the union pension program for which those employees would never be vested. The union pension fund gets nice and healthy. The overarching goal of project is bolstering union pension funds."

MWAA's CEO contends the project's cost will not be adversely affected by the PLA.  "You'd be hard pressed to say that it makes more than a $5 million difference in either direction on a [$2.7] billion project," Potter says.

Under the Davis-Bacon Act, all workers will be paid prevailing wages regardless of their union affiliation. Potter's position is echoed by LiUNA.

"MWAA already knows that there are about 8 teams who are planning to put in bids. Eight teams is robust competition on a project of this size," said LiUNA general counsel Brian Petruska. "There is going to be a competitive, rock bottom, market price based on competitive bidding and the people who have the best teams and the best technology."

If Virginia makes good on its threat to pull its Phase 2 funding, motorists may end up among the losers. A $2.25 toll on the Dulles Toll Road for a one-way trip could jump to $4.50, according to a report prepared for MWAA.