By Carten Cordell | Virginia Statehouse News
ALEXANDRIA — The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s vote Wednesday to drop a project labor agreement from the Silver Line Metro project was akin to couples therapy for the funding partners involved.
Everyone hopes it will work, but no one is sure.
In dropping the agreement, MWAA board members said they hope to put aside the one-upmanship that has dogged Phase 2 negotiations and get back to making the project work. The entire $6 billion Silver Line Metro project is an 11-mile section of metro line that will reach to Washington Dulles International Airport.
The now-dead agreement, which would have provided an incentive scale for contractors using union labor, became a flashpoint for an ongoing political chess match between the MWAA board and funding partners Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Loudoun County.
“Hopefully, it will provide the impetus for Loudoun County to vote and opt into the project,” MWAA board chairman Michael Curto said.
The question now is can MWAA, Virginia and Loudoun all just get along?
MWAA was under the gun on two fronts:
- Securing the $150 million promised by Virginia to lessen the toll hikes on the Dulles Toll Road in 2013 and 2014. Tolls are expected to fund $1.8 billion of the Phase 2 construction and could rise without additional funding.
- Keeping Loudoun County on board to build two stations beyond the proposed Dulles stop. The county is expected to decide by July 4 whether to provide more than $267 million to build Phase 2, which is projected to cost $2.8 billion.
Virginia and Loudoun had said the labor agreement would increase the cost of the project.
Further, Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state seemed to run contrary to the agreement, especially since the whole project was being built in the Commonwealth.
To bridge a growing divide between McDonnell and the MWAA board, the governor wrote a letter Tuesday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, saying that if board members dropped the labor agreement, Virginia would hand over the $150 million “without any further conditions.”
McDonnell spokesman Taylor Thornley said in an email that the governor was pleased with the MWAA vote and ready to help get Phase 2 off the ground.
“This is a step forward with honoring Virginia law and practice as well as the wishes of the Dulles Rail funding partners,” he said. “The Commonwealth remains committed to completing the Dulles Rail project in a timely and cost-effective manner.”
Many board members, including Curto, supported the labor agreement but agreed to drop it to keep the project going.
“I think it is important to send a signal to Loudoun County that we wish to encourage their participation. It is critical to the success of the project,” Curto said.
But board member Robert Clarke Brown cast the lone dissenting voter over concerns about McDonnell’s intention to give the $150 million. He proposed an amendment to drop the labor agreement only when McDonnell signed a binding funding agreement to hand over the money, but the amendment failed.
“We have been dealing now for a year with the Commonwealth on this issue,” he said. “I think we have learned that having a statement from them or their signature on a letter of intent really can’t be relied on. This is a history of a partner that moves the goalpost repeatedly. We are now at a critical time on this project. We need firm answers.”
Board member Dennis Martire, whose ties to the Laborers’ International Union of North America had received attention leading up to the vote, said the board shouldn’t change the labor terms midstream.
“I have yet to hear a business reason, for someone to tell us from Virginia or anywhere else, that we are making a bad business decision by requiring a labor agreement that is keeping the project on time, on budget and safe,” he said.
“I find it offensive that we are now going to change working conditions on the workers that have done an outstanding job in the 100-degree heat and freezing cold winters. We are going to have to take a step back, because this is nothing more than politics.”
Vice chairman Thomas Davis said union labor still may be used on the project, but that decision would be up to the contractors, not the government.
“My goal was to build a rail system, with or without a (labor agreement). I’m not ideological,” he said.
The Mid-Atlantic section of the Laborers International Union of North America directed all its comments to MWAA. The Loudoun County Public Affairs Office did not return calls seeking comment.