The Scudder Falls Bridge near Trenton used to be free. Last month, it reopened as a toll bridge, after a costly construction project.
According to a lawsuit by a building contractor, Pennsylvania and New Jersey governors — from Ed Rendell and Jon S. Corzine to Tom Wolf and Chris Christie — added tens of millions of dollars to the cost of that new interstate bridge linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey, through a bidding process that favored employers of members of the influential Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council unions at the expense of rival union and nonunion contractors.
Citing messages between Wolf aides and bridge commissioners obtained through public-records requests, the civil suit by George Harms Construction Co. of Howell, N.J., alleges that requiring a project labor agreement custom-fitted for the Building Trades inflated the cost of the new Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission bridge on I-295 (formerly I-95).
The suit says the cost went up more than $70 million, because the commission’s insistence on a labor agreement favoring council members effectively prevented contractors with other union or nonunion workers from doing the job.
Public contracting laws as interpreted by courts in both states, as well as the bridge commission’s competitive-bidding guidelines, bar agencies from manipulating the bidding to favor one contractor at public expense, according to Harms’ complaint.
But special arrangements benefiting favored groups are a fact of life in the Philadelphia area, Harms contends: “The Building Trades pledge support for a political candidate. With that support comes campaign contributions and votes. In exchange for this political support, the Building Trades request [project labor agreements using their members] on large-scale government construction projects."
The bridge commission says it needed the labor agreement to locate skilled workers and get work started on time in 2017, 17 years after the commission decided it needed a replacement. Executive Director Joseph Resta said the commission had no comment beyond its court filings.
The Building Trades council, headed by John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, is not accused of wrongdoing in the bridge deal. Members of Dougherty’s union alone, Electricians Local 98, donated over $40 million to candidates and elections from 2008 to 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Wolf’s campaigns for governor have collected over $5 million from members of the Electricians, Carpenters, Plumbers, and other Building Trades unions, dwarfing teachers’ unions, plaintiff’s lawyer groups, and other single sources of funds. The Building Trades unions were also leading contributors to Corzine and Rendell.
In a statement, Dougherty praised project labor agreements like the one that covered his members at the bridge: “They provide workers with salaries, benefits, and medical coverage. The I-295 bridge project is a testament to the wisdom of Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Steve Sweeney” (D., Gloucester), the Building Trades union official who heads the New Jersey Senate, Dougherty added.
Dougherty was indicted last winter on federal charges of spending funds from Local 98, where he is also business manager, without authorization. He pleaded not guilty.
Harms said the labor requirement made it impossible to use his steelworkers or others who aren’t part of the Philadelphia trade unions. Harms said it planned to bid $325 million, within the range that the commission’s engineers originally estimated, if it could use its steelworkers labor force. Nonunion builders also protested the bidding requirements.
Though dozens of contractors sought bidding information for the job, only one company — Trumbull Corp. of Pittsburgh, a frequent bidder on state projects — finally offered to build the bridge after the commission insisted on the project labor agreement. Trumbull’s bid — $396 million — was more than 20 percent above the high end of the commission’s projected price range. Trumbull agreed to use the Philadelphia unions and an affiliated trade union council based in Mercer County.
After reading the bidding restrictions, Harms asked the commission to rebid the job without requiring a project labor agreement, so its steelworkers could compete.
The commission responded by preemptively suing Harms, asking a Mercer County judge to let it speed the job along before spring environmental restrictions would delay the work.
Wolf wouldn’t comment on his role in getting donors hired. “Neither the administration nor its agencies or officials were named as defendants in this matter,” spokesperson J.J. Abbott said in a statement. “Any dispute here is between the construction company and the [bridge commission], which is an independent bistate commission," half of whose members were appointed by Wolf or his predecessors.
“Gov. Christie’s focus was on getting the bridge project done for the benefit of commuters in New Jersey," said the former New Jersey governor’s representative, Megan Fielder, in an email. "No other considerations entered his decision-making process. Any allegations in this lawsuit to the contrary are categorically false.”
Fielder ignored questions about why Christie, who initially opposed a project labor agreement, changed his mind to support it. Rendell and Corzine didn’t return calls.
Sued by the commission, the Harms company sued back in May 2018 in Superior Court, joined by Steelworkers member Michael Rainville, who noted that he and other steelworkers “lost wages and other benefits” due to the commission’s “unlawful” refusal to let his employer bid for the job — and will have to pay higher tolls to cover the more expensive deal.
In a statement filed by Harms, Steelworkers District 4 leader John E. Shinn, who represents New Jersey among other states, confirmed that the commission’s insistence on a project labor agreement including the Philadelphia trade unions would prevent his members from working on the bridge. Shinn didn’t return calls seeking comment.
The old Scudder Falls bridge, which opened in 1961, was targeted for replacement by the bridge commission in 2000. The commission began seeking construction approvals in 2003. In 2009, commission members voted unanimously to impose tolls on drivers at the new bridge.
By then, according to records cited in the Harms lawsuit, the Philadelphia unions had already been pushing for a project labor agreement — and Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell was committed to making that happen.
According to the Harms suit, project labor agreements are a goal of the unions’ political contributions policy. “The members are specifically told that the candidates they endorse will support the use of PLAs on government construction. They are told this will ensure jobs for members. They are told opponents will not support PLAs …The Building Trades themselves acknowledge that a PLA is a mechanism by which they are able to secure [government] contracts in exchange for political support."
In 2009, when project labor agreement supporter Corzine faced a stiff challenge from Christie, the union council told members on its website: “If Jon Corzine is reelected, it will mean jobs. If Chris Christie wins, one of his first acts will be to eliminate project labor agreements (PLAs) on public works contracts. This will cut jobs for building trades members." The building trades unions became one of Corzine’s largest donors.
But Corzine lost, and the bridge plan went on apparent hiatus.
Several governors “made clear that Pennsylvania would not support the project" without a building trades labor agreement, Wolf aide Chelsea Rosebud Guzowski wrote in a September 2016 email to two Pennsylvanians on the commission. “The deal dated back to Ed Rendell, was then supported by Tom Corbett, and is currently supported by Gov. Tom Wolf,” Guzowski’s boss. (Corbett told me he didn’t remember the I-295 bridge but generally did not favor project labor agreements.)
“Our [Pennsylvania] commissioners are of the position that they cannot support the project moving forward without a PLA,” Guzowski continued.
But Christie was "opposed,” she added.
In response, Pennsylvania bridge commissioner Wadud Ahmad wrote to Guzowski, saying that fellow commissioner “Danny” Grace, an official of Teamsters Local 830 and a member of the Philly trades council, would contact New Jersey labor leaders “to see what pressure they can put on the N.J. Governor’s Office.” Guzowski wrote that Grace contacted Sweeney, his fellow trades council union leader and a Christie ally despite their party differences.
Grace, though a bridge commissioner, “had a clear conflict of interest" — as he represented both his members and the toll-paying public that paid the bills — “for which he should have recused himself,” the Harms lawsuit charges. “The interests of the toll payers were ignored.”
Grace declined to comment.
Christie soon came around to the Philly unions’ position.