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Editorial: Labor pact will help build bridge

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges,

Workers continue early construction of pilings, from barges, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge crossing from Westchester to Rockland County, in background. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

Plans for a new Tappan Zee Bridge got a needed hand when labor leaders struck a deal with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that will translate to hundreds of millions in savings.

Assuming, of course, that there is funding for the project.

Cuomo, the New York State Thruway Authority and 26 unions representing 14 trades announced terms last week that would save $452 million on the construction of a new Hudson River span. At a cost of about $5.2 billion, it would be one of the largest public works projects in the country.

A complex project of this scope, which could mean roughly 45,000 jobs, needs uniformity in its work rules and workforce. This agreement gives it just that -- one set of rules.

Criticism that the agreement forecloses the use of cheaper nonunion labor doesn't resound in reality. Is New York really going to build a bridge with nonunion labor?

Certainly not, but this agreement does have a 12 percent provision that allows contractors to hire some nonunion workers while allowing a higher number from smaller businesses and those owned by women or minorities. All told, businesses in these categories could gain $400 million in work.

In addition to standardizing parameters like allowing for a four-day workweek with 10-hour days, the agreement limits overtime. And it prevents work stoppages with a no-strike provision that shouldn't be overlooked, since many of these private-sector unions are expected to enter contract talks at some point during construction.

And while labor agreed to a 15-percent wage concession, the hard-hit trades get some gains of their own -- like needed jobs during a recession that hasn't been kind to construction workers.

This project labor agreement is similar to others that once helped build infrastructure like the Hoover Dam in Nevada, Shasta Dam in California, Disney World and, more recently, scores of schools and stadiums across the country. In fact, a project labor agreement has been in place since 1994 for ongoing repairs on Tappan Zee itself.

While this agreement provides controls and flexibility for the project, it doesn't trump the big unanswered question: How is New York going to pay for a new bridge?

Borrowing? Higher tolls? And will Congress ever get its act together and pass a transportation bill that would enable the state to borrow $2 billion from Uncle Sam?

Cuomo has promised a financial plan soon and we are waiting to see it.

For now, this project labor agreement resolves some uncertainties. It's one tool of the many needed to put the span in place.