Dennis L. Martire was on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board during the procurement stage of Silver Line Phase 2. He is vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of Laborers’ International Union of North America.
While summer is the season for travel, the season has been anything but favorable for one major transportation project: Phase 2 of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project.
Last summer, Virginia and the federal government sued one of the project’s subcontractors, Universal Concrete Products, for falsifying documents and installing nearly 1,600 faulty concrete panels. This summer, a report confirmed that operation likely won’t begin until the latter portion of 2020 because construction problems that have delayed the project from its initial operation date of 2018. To make matters worse, project officials failed to monitor the costs associated with the project’s change orders.
This lackadaisical attitude toward Silver Line Phase 2 costs is a complete 180 from when I was on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board determining the bid specifics for Phase 2. Back then, work on Phase 1 was nearing completion. Bechtel, one of the contractors forming the joint venture Dulles Transit Partners on Phase 1, had credited a work agreement known as a project labor agreement (PLA) as part of its overall success. With proof of its usefulness on Phase 1, MWAA proposed a PLA on Phase 2. However, Virginia Republicans justified an attack on the agreement over supposed costs that Virginia taxpayers would have to pay with the agreement in place. The key word being “supposed.”
Former congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) touted saving the commonwealth $400 million by preventing a PLA on Phase 2, even though fact-checkers found otherwise. The costs didn’t stop there. Virginia Republicans shifted their attention to the MWAA board’s approved business costs. Every meal and every flight were subject to scrutiny despite having no connection to Silver Line Phase 2.
Before relentless attacks from Comstock and then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a majority of the MWAA board supported a PLA on Phase 2. In 2011, MWAA voted 11 to 2 in favor of a PLA mandate. Shortly thereafter, McDonnell resorted to a power grab: He threatened to deny various million-dollar amounts in state funding until MWAA eliminated the work agreement. Changing my vote on the PLA mandate was the only way I felt the project had enough funding to advance, and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
While they were concerned with unrelated little things, the procurement method Virginia Republicans advocated led to big problems that we continue to watch unfold. Low-bid procurement is exactly what it sounds like. A contractor submits the lowest bid and receives the work. However, rather than consider safety, skilled labor or success of a contractor’s past projects, the prioritized factor is cost. As a result, contractors look to cut corners to make their bid even lower, which jeopardizes the quality of the project.
Regardless of what they said, Virginia Republicans weren’t concerned for taxpayers. Instead, alarming taxpayers of potential costs to appear financially responsible was simply a part of their plan to eliminate the labor agreement. If they were genuinely concerned for taxpayers, they would have attacked the contractors’ shoddy work that actually raised the costs of the project in the same way they attacked the PLA.
Virginia Republicans got what they asked for, low-bid procurement without a PLA, but for what? Phase 2 is looking at a two-year minimum delay; Phase 1 was delayed only six months. And though construction on Phase 1 did go over budget by approximately $220 million, the PLA on Bechtel’s work was not a contributing factor. According to a recent report from the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, the forecast cost of the rail line and rail yard on Phase 2 are projected to exceed their initial budgets by approximately $217.6 million and $26.2 million, respectively. These projections put Phase 2 more over budget than Phase 1. Also, Silver Line Phase 2 is projected to go through nearly half of its $551.5 million contingency fund. Because project officials haven’t done their due diligence to track individual change orders, more of this contingency fund may be used than we think. If the fund runs out, Loudoun and Fairfax county taxpayers and Dulles Toll Road drivers will pay more to cover additional costs.
Procurement isn’t a time to advance a political agenda. It’s a time to do what is best for the public, who not only will contribute to the project’s funding through taxes or tolls but will also depend on the form of transportation. MWAA and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority say they will not accept a substandard project. Yet, we need to prevent substandard work on future public projects by keeping politics out of procurement.