The Latest Twist in Rail-to-Dulles Politics

Sen. Charles J. Colgan. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas, signed off Friday on a state budget compromise that omits $300 million for the Rail-to-Dulles project, reports the Washington Post. Colgan said that his agreement in Senate-House budget conferee deliberations does not commit him to actually voting for the compromise budget when the Senate must ratify it. But his decision does appear to be the first break in the stand-off.

Colgan’s decision took place against a backdrop of furious negotiations between the McDonnell administration and Senate Democrats. According to another Washington Post article, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton had agreed to provide as much as $200 million of the $300 million demanded by the Dems, then backed off. (The article made no mention of $100 million or more demanded to buy down tolls for the Midtown/Downtown tunnels in Norfolk and Portsmouth.)

“What is particularly galling is, the administration has been giving mixed signals,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “Two weeks ago, they indicated that they had $200 million available. Two days ago, they said they had $175 million available. And yesterday, they had zero.”

Connaughton and his boss, Governor Bob McDonnell, had a difficult juggling act. Many Republicans balked at the idea of borrowing $300 million to help defray the interest expense on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) bonds that would be used to finance Phase 2 of the estimated $2.8 Metrorail project.

“I understand they want to secure that [$300 million], but to sell bonds to mitigate tolls, that really is kind of a stretch,” said Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Midlothian. “I’d be willing to put cash into it. But to sell bonds to mitigate tolls and have to run around and have to pay interest on them, fiscally, that’s not being responsible.”

The McDonnell administration had already agreed to funnel $150 million into the project. Still lurking is the issue of the Rail-to-Dulles Project Labor Agreement (PLA). Some Republicans wanted to make that $150 million contingent upon the MWAA board reversing a decision to give preferential treatment during the bidding process to companies that signed a PLA, in effect guaranteeing that all worker would be hired through labor union hiring halls. Critics say that provision could knock open-shop contractors out of the bidding, decrease competition and result in a higher price for the project.


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  1. Jeff Barnett Avatar
    Jeff Barnett

    In the last paragraph, the phrase about “preferential treatment … to companies that signed a PLA” is correct. The subsequent phrase about “labor union hiring halls” is not.

    For Dulles Rail, no one will be required, directly or indirectly, to join a union. No one will be forced to pay union dues or to apply for work only through a union hiring hall. Whether a contractor has or doesn’t have a union workforce should make no difference.

  2. constructionandlaborguy Avatar


    I’ve seen you comment in this space and in WaPo and other DC papers in support of PLAs. I think you are not familiar with government-mandated PLAs and are generally misinformed about this topic. These special interest schemes have a tremendous anti-competitive impact, especially on merit shop prime contractors and subcontractors that self-perform work and hire nonunion craftspeople.

    Have you seen the Phase 2 PLA?

    The Phase 2 PLA circulated to MWAA board members by MWAA board member and Laborers Union vice president Dennis Martire in April 2011 can be found here:

    Have you read the highlighted pro-union provisions contained in this document?

    I have and I’m familiar with voluntary PLAs and PLA mandates. In this particular PLA, nonunion firms CAN bid on PLA projects, but the PLA has the practical impact of discouraging bids from nonunion contractors.

    For example, nonunion craft workers are treated like second class citizens.

    See Section 4.5 of the agreement, which makes it clear craft workers would have to join a union to work on the project.

    This provision is likely illegal under Virginia’s Right to Work law.

    However, PLA mandates are not illegal in Right to Work States. They can be revised to work around the law. For example, it is legal for a PLA in a right to work state to force contractors to hire workers through union hiring halls as a condition of winning a contract. This doesn’t force workers to join a union (which would violate RTW), but it forces contractors to hire union workers. It skirts the intent and spirit of Virginia’s right to work law.

    The public (well, except for you, perhaps, but I doubt it) hasn’t seen the Phase 2 PLA yet (MWAA didn’t release a final PLA when they were pushing for a PLA mandate) and we may not see it at all if Phase 2 is subject to a PLA preference policy (it is unclear if MWAA will give a PLA to all of the firms in the RFQ/RFP documents or if each firm will write their own).

    You frequently cite the erroneous argument that PLAs are needed to ensure high wages. The PLA is hardly about wages. The PLA is about creating a labor monopoly for unions. For this project, wages are already set by the federal prevailing wage and benefit rates established by the Davis-Bacon Act regardless of whether there is a PLA on this job or if the worker is union or nonunion. Have you examined the prevailing wage rates published by the U.S. Department of Labor that apply to this project?

    I have to assume that your attacks on fair and open competition are politically motivated.

    How much money did you receive from construction unions, organized labor and individual union members when you ran against Frank Wolf in 2010?

    It is a fair question since you are advocating for a position that will enrich construction unions. And you stand to benefit by receiving union campaign donations in future runs at public office for spreading misinformation in support of the PLA. Not to mention, it gives you a sturdy platform to pivot and attack Rep. Frank Wolf for not securing additional federal money for this boondoggle.

    What office are you running for next?

  3. I suspect Mr. Barnett is being paid to lobby for the mandatory PLA. He is clearly monitoring any public discussions about a mandatory PLA for Dulles Rail, Phase II and responding, with what I think, is misinformation. While I would agree with him on the choice issue with respect to abortion decisions, I find him and most other Democrats don’t like choice in most any other contacts — school choice, voluntary PLAs, health care reform.

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