The Gold Star Memorial Bridge crossing the Thames River between New London and Groton is due for an overhaul and has been the subject of many transportation-related discussions, ranging from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Let’s Go CT infrastructure program to tolls.
The rehabilitation project was broken up into two parts, the south-bound bridge and the north-bound bridge, and there is a big difference between the two: work on south-bound side of the bridge was completed by an in-state, open shop company and the north-bound side was given a project labor agreement.
Rehabilitation of the south-bound side of the Gold Star Bridge was completed in 2020 by Mohawk Northeast, Inc, an open-shop contractor based in Plantsville that actually has two facilities located at each end of the bridge.
The cost of the south-bound project came in at $34.2 million and the company received a letter of satisfactory completion from the Connecticut Department of Transportation on October 26, 2020.
The much larger project on the older north-bound bridge has yet to begin and will likely take three phases to complete, including a full replacement of the bridge deck, which likely make for nightmare traffic.
The project hasn’t officially been put out to bid yet but will be given a PLA, which means open-shop contractors like Mohawk will likely not bid on the project.
PLA’s require a contractor to use labor from union halls and abide by union work rules, including paying union benefits and fees for the duration of the project in addition to the benefits they already pay their employees. The added work rules and increased costs often cause non-union contractors to pass on a project, which could decrease the number of competitive bids.
The PLA on the Gold Star Bridge was assigned under Gov. Malloy’s administration, but the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont in June of 2020 asking that he rescind the PLA.
“The implementation of a PLA on such a large and complex project as the Gold Star Bridge will prevent a number of experienced Connecticut-based companies from bidding and will increase the likelihood this project will be awarded to an out-of-state company,” wrote Chris Fryxell, president of the CT ABC.
“Not only will a PLA unfairly exclude local contractors from a fair opportunity to bid but by artificially limiting bid competition it is likely the cost to taxpayers will increase with no added benefit,” Fryxell continued. “Many of these projects have been awarded to out-of-state companies which may provide temporary employment for our residents but do not significantly contribute to the long-term growth of the Connecticut economy.”
According to state statute, a project labor agreement can only be included in a project if it is determined to be in the public’s best interest, although the determining factors can be rather vague and applicable to either union or non-union contractors.
In the case of the Gold Star Bridge, a Due Diligence Impact Study was conducted for the CT DOT in 2018 by Arace & Company Consulting, LLC, a New York based firm that specializes in PLA feasibility studies.
The feasibility study determined “that using a PLA would provide several layers of labor stability to the project, including: a single set of rules and conditions for all workers; elimination of work stoppage; ensuring priority access to the local union member network; a well-trained and safety conscious work force.”
However, Fryxell says the idea that a well-trained and safety conscious work force are unique to unionized labor is “offensive.”
“All workers, union and open shop are required to complete required OSHA safety courses and there is no OSHA data to suggest that union workers are safer than non-union workers,” Fryxell said. “There is nothing in the study that supports the claim that union workers are more safety conscious — somehow they conclude the workforce would be more safety conscious without ever addressing how they came to that conclusion.”
Secondly, Fryxell notes, the work stoppages the PLA avoids are stoppages due to collective bargaining contracts that expire in the middle of a project and therefore would be a non-issue for an open shop contractor.
“The workers for open shop contractors don’t go on strike,” Fyxell said. “It makes no sense.”
The study also determined the state could save roughly $3.3 million if the union granted certain concessions regarding apprentice labor, shift differentials and straight-time for Saturday make-up shifts.
Any study that asserts a PLA is intended to create a level playing field among all bidders has clearly been fed talking points from special interests and consumed them indiscriminately.Chris Fryxell, President of the Association of Builders and Contractors of Connecticut
“Any study that asserts a PLA is intended to create a level playing field among all bidders has clearly been fed talking points from special interests and consumed them indiscriminately,” Fryxell said. “This isn’t a study so much as a paid advertisement. It should be rejected wholesale.”
Even taking the study’s findings without question, one question still remains: why was one side of the bridge given a PLA and the other side was not? Especially, when the work on the south-bound side has already been completed without incident.
According to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, the size and scope of the north-bound bridge rehabilitation project prompted the inclusion of a PLA.
“With the vast majority of the work involving steel strengthening below the driving surface fo the bridge, approximately 77 percent of this preliminary estimate involves the iron workers trade,” wrote Kevin Nursick, communications director for CT DOT. “This presents an opportunity to negotiate time savings, adequate staffing and schedule certainty with the union(s) representing these workers, in contrast to smaller potential savings on much smaller contracts.”
“For project involving infrastructure work on a roadway or bridge that is critical in terms of conveying public travel, PLAs become an insurance policy that the work will not stop and that workers will not strike if a dispute arises,” Nursick said.
The Lamont has shown an apparent favoritism toward PLAs, going so far as to require PLAs for $19 billion in infrastructure projects in the last iteration of a tolls bill, which likewise prompted outcry from Fryxell and CT ABC.
Similarly, work to reform the State Pier in New London as a staging area for an offshore wind farm was given a PLA, as was work on the wind farm itself.
However, the PLA Due Diligence Study disputes the idea that PLAs limit the number of bids on a project, saying either that there is little evidence or that they just don’t know.
A 2020 study of school construction projects in Connecticut found PLA’s increased the cost of the project by 19 percent. According to the Beacon Hill Institute in Massachusetts, the use of PLAs cost taxpayers an additional $500 million in school construction costs between 2001 and 2019.
However, the criticism that PLAs may push in-state contractors out of the bidding process – a charge leveled by Fryxell – is not directly addressed by the study, although it lists several completed PLA projects, like the CT Fastrak Busway, which were awarded to companies outside of Connecticut.
The Connecticut Port Authority announced that a contractor based on Omaha, Nebraska had been chosen to redevelop the State Pier in New London on Wednesday, according to a report by the New London Day.
A Freedom of Information request found the Port Authority had not conducted a due diligence study before attaching a PLA to the State Pier project.