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Labor agreement for I-81 will raise costs and sideline local workers (Commentary)


Jeff Albert is chief operating officer of the Associated Builders & Contractors, Empire State Chapter.

As leaders continue to discuss and debate the future of Interstate 81 and the impact on downtown Syracuse, they must get two things right. The first is getting the design right. The second is ensuring no Project Labor Agreement, or PLA, is placed on the project. A PLA is a pre-hire agreement where most of the workers will come from local union hiring halls. A PLA restricts certain contractors from bidding the work because they can’t hire their current employees.

Now, before anyone starts screaming about being against unions, let’s set the record straight. We want all contractors to be able to bid the work and we want the best bid to win. That’s what’s best for the taxpayers. More competition leads to better bids and better projects. A PLA does just the opposite.

Locally, according to state agencies that oversee bidding, about 80% of all highway construction in Central New York is done by merit shop contractors. Those are companies that are not signatory to the unions. That means 80% of the workforce are local taxpayers who deserve the right to work on this project but will lose that opportunity if a PLA is present.

We’ve already seen, right here in Syracuse, the negative bid results a PLA can have on a project. According to the Empire Center, the New York state Department of Transportation last year sought and then scrapped bids for construction work on the Empire State Trail. The original bid, won by a Central New York contractor, did not contain a PLA. However, the department re-bid the project with the condition that firms sign a PLA. DOT received fewer bids, and ultimately awarded the work to a bidder whose price was over $1.5 million more than the lowest first-round bid. By the way, that project was ultimately awarded to a contractor from Rochester.

We need to keep in mind the size and scope of the Empire State Trail project with the reconstruction of I-81. The trailway project was originally bid as a straightforward, fairly routine project with 3.1 miles of sidewalks and trails and expected to cost around $15 million. It was awarded at just under $19 million after the PLA was added. That’s an increase of 10% and again, the jobs have been awarded to an out-of-area contractor.

Let’s now juxtapose the trail project with I-81. This project is a complex redesign, replacing 1.4 miles of interstate and rebuilding one of the key highway systems of Onondaga County. It’s a big project with a huge impact. Yet if it follows the Empire State Trail project, the price tag will balloon to well over $2 billion of wasteful spending simply to appease some influential donors. I would think our elected leaders could find a better use for that $200 million. Maybe we can replace some sewer and water lines that keep failing year after year?

While some will say we’re prejudiced to one side of the issue, the experts agree that the lower the number of bidders, the higher the cost of the project. A study by Paul G. Carr, P.E., from Cornell University, illustrates what happens when the number of bidders on a project is reduced. The study looks at 125 public works projects in New York state. The study unequivocally found that by reducing the number of bidders on public projects, the cost of construction will increase. A reduction of two bidders added more than 4% to the bid cost. What will happen when you reduce the pool of potential local bidders, those that have been doing this work for decades, by 80%?

A project this large and this complex will draw bidders from all over the state and the country. That competition is good. But what we don’t need to see, and what would be exacerbated by a PLA, are all the out-of-state license plates. Those traveling workers, while temporarily being a boost to the economy, aren’t taxpayers who have been loyal to their community and their state, paid their taxes, and earned the right to build Syracuse’s future.

As we continue to deal with the aftermath of a global pandemic, elected officials need to get this right. They need to ensure that everyone that wants to bid this project is afforded the opportunity. It’s time for them to do right by the masses and not the donors. Keep the Project Labor Agreement off this project, protect the taxpayers from wasteful spending and let all local workers build our future.

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