Corps of Engineers nixes PLA for levee project

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A LEVEE TOPPED by a bike trail, foreground, protects central Madison County from Mississippi River floodwater after recent rains.
A LEVEE TOPPED by a bike trail, foreground, protects central Madison County from Mississippi River floodwater after recent rains.

By CARL GREEN

Illinois Correspondent

Collinsville – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected plans to use a Project Labor Agreement for a major part of the Mississippi River levee improvements now under way in the metro east.

Local officials had hoped that the Corps would agree to the plan, which would prevent the Corps from bringing in non-union workers and would make it likely that local workers would get the jobs.

Les Sterman of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council was informed in a phone call that the Corps’ legal division had put the kibosh on PLA for a cut-off wall job near Wood River that is expected to cost about $20 million.

The Corps had secured federal funding for about 60 percent of the cost of the job, which would greatly stretch the local sales tax dollars that are paying for most of the overall project and would make up the remainder on the cut-off wall, which would reach all the way down to bedrock to protect a vulnerable part of the levee system.

SOUND POLICY

Sterman’s policy is to use PLA on anything that includes the local money, on grounds that doing so would keep the money in the local economy. So the federal money the Corps secured now comes with a bitter taste.

“It was a very disappointing, shortsighted decision by the Corps,” he said. “To say the very least, we are angry over this. This doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The decision does not endanger progress on the larger project and will not affect the many parts of it being funded entirely locally. But it may set a precedent for any future work that Corps helps to fund. Supporters say that by organizing the workforce in advance, PLA holds down costs, assures an adequate workforce and prevents strikes, while also providing jobs for local workers – in short, a win-win deal for both contractors and workers.

Local officials had presented support for the PLA on the project from contractors, unions and public officials because of how well the system has worked on many other regional jobs.

TOTAL SUPPORT FOR PLA

“Just about everybody has signed off in support of it,” said Dale Stewart, executive secretary of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, which administers PLA in this region.

But the Corps’ legal eagles claim that for the agency to use PLA would violate a federal acquisitions law, Sterman said, even though that puts the Corps in conflict with their ultimate boss, President Obama, who supports PLA for federal projects.

The local advocates are now considering their options. They could challenge the Corps’ legal opinion through the administration, or try to shift the federal money to a part of the project that would not require local funds, or possibly just complete the project without further funding from the Corps, Sterman said.

“It’s too soon to tell,” he said. “Clearly, we are concerned there will be an economic impact, since now these local tax dollars won’t be spent in the region. We’re going to continue the fight.”

Said Stewart: “I don’t want to give any more work up to them if we don’t get this turned around.”

They were more pleased with the results of bidding on a different part of the project. Lane Construction of Sherwood, Ill. ­­­– not local but still a union contractor – had the low bid of $12.9 million on a series of relief wells and berms in Monroe and St. Clair counties. The company is from out of the region, but the PLA will put local workers on the job, Sterman noted.

The decision was criticized in a letter to the Corps from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Belleville). It read, in part:

“Frankly, this decision is baffling to a community that has so strongly pursued this project.  As the full levee reconstruction plan includes several federally funded projects, we strongly encourage you to limit today’s decision to this portion and make PLAs part of future levee improvement projects.”

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