Barreling Down the Tracks: Project Labor Agreement for California’s High-Speed Rail – the Biggest, Costliest Union Construction Monopoly in History

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Background on Contracts for Construction of the First Section of the California High-Speed Rail, as Based on the Bill Approved by the State Senate Today (July 6, 2012)

This afternoon (July 6, 2012), the California State Senate barely passed a budget trailer bill (Senate Bill 1029) that authorizes $5.85 billion (actually, $5,849,752,000.00) to acquire land and build the “initial operating segment” of the California High-Speed Rail. According to the bill, the project will be reviewed and overseen by the (obscure) State Public Works Board.

In December 2012, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will award several contracts for this first segment through an alternative bidding procedure called design-build. Five entities that are conglomerates of major engineering and heavy construction infrastructure corporations have qualified to bid under this procedure. (This is the Big Time, although there is supposed to be a goal to have 30 percent of the work go to small businesses.)

Instead of awarding contracts to design the project and then awarding contracts to the lowest responsible bidder to build it, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is authorized to award contracts to qualified corporate entities that combine project design AND construction work. The California High-Speed Rail Authority will select the design-build entities using a somewhat subjective list of “best value criteria” that could result in design-build entities winning contracts without being the lowest price. The State Public Works Board and the California Department of Finance will approve the criteria to aware the design-build contract.

As directed by Assembly Bill 1029, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is now required to issue some reports related to construction:

1. By October 1, 2012, prior to awarding a contract to start construction of the first segment of the California High-Speed Rail, and prior to advertising additional contracts to be awarded in September 2013 and October 2013, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will provide a comprehensive staff management report that includes a list of “proposed steps and procedures that will be employed to ensure adequate oversight and management of contractors involved in the construction contracts funded in this act.” That same report will list “procedures to detect and prevent contract splitting.” The California High-Speed Rail Authority will also need to submit a report with the same content requirements before additional contracts are awarded in March 2017.

3. On or before March 1 and November 15 of each year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will provide a Project Update Report approved by the Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing to the budget committees and the appropriate policy committees of the Assembly and Senate on the development and implementation of the California High-Speed Rail.

4. On or before June 30, 2013, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will prepare and submit a report approved by the Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing that provides an analysis of the net impact of the California High-Speed Rail program on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The report shall be submitted to the Assembly and Senate budget committees and transportation committees.

My observations about these provisions in Senate Bill 1029:

1. While it’s unclear how it will be implemented, it’s quite likely there will be a requirement for the design-build entities and their subcontractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions for some or all of the construction work. I provided extensive background information about this Project Labor Agreement threat in my highly-read January 12, 2012 article in www.TheTruthaboutPLAs.com entitled California’s Top Construction Union Officials Love the State’s $100 Billion High-Speed Rail Project.

The eight-member Board of Directors of the California High-Speed Rail Authority includes Bob Balgenorth, head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and Russ Burns, head of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 3. The Senate Rules Committee appointed Balgenorth, and former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass appointed Burns.

Balgenorth has spoken repeatedly and publicly in support of the California High-Speed Rail even as just about everyone with common sense has mocked the costly, beleaguered project. Surely someone will reward Balgenorth and Burns for their efforts with a requirement for contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions to work on construction of the California High-Speed Rail. Of particular benefit to the unions, a Project Labor Agreement will kill off what would have been fierce competition from non-union contractors to perform electrical work and build the stations.

2. According to its web site, the State Public Works Board (SPWB) “was created by the Legislature to oversee the fiscal matters associated with construction of projects for state agencies, and to select and acquire real property for state facilities and programs. The SPWB is also the issuer of lease-revenue bonds, which is a form of long term financing that is used to pay for capital projects.” Its five members are officials from the Department of Finance, the Department of General Services, the Department of Transportation, the State Treasurer’s Office, and the State Controller’s Office. Amazingly, there isn’t a representative of organized labor sitting in on this board.

3. According to the May 12, 2012 minutes of the State Public Works Board, the High Speed Rail Authority “anticipates acquiring 1,100 properties from Madera County to Bakersfield County over the next two years as part of the high speed train system.” Perhaps this explains why the California Construction Industry Labor-Management Cooperative Trust and its precedessor (the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California Labor-Management Cooperation Trust) made two huge campaign contributions ($1,000,000 and $250,000) to committees opposing statewide ballot measures to restrict government power to acquire property through eminent domain. (I’ll write more about this issue in a later post – it deserves its own analysis.)

4. It would seem that the report requirement in Senate Bill 1029 to explain oversight and management of the contractors on the California High-Speed Rail project would be fulfilled with implementation of the labor compliance requirements now outlined in California Labor Code Section 1771. This is language enacted in 2011 through union-backed Assembly Bill 436, a bill that also repealed language of California Labor Code 1771.9, which was enacted in 2003 by union-backed Assembly Bill 1506. That original language applied specifically to contractor labor law compliance for the California High-Speed Rail project. Note that the new 2011 law (Assembly Bill 436) allows a government entity to exempt itself from labor compliance requirements if “the awarding body has entered into a collective bargaining agreement that binds all of the contractors performing work on the project and that includes a mechanism for resolving disputes about the payment of wages.” (This is the definition of a Project Labor Agreement.)

5. What is “contract splitting,” and why does Senate Bill 1029 require the California High-Speed Rail Authority to report on its efforts to prevent it? These are interesting questions. Obviously someone somewhere is worried about something!

California Public Contract Code Section 20915 states that “It shall be unlawful to employ any means to evade the provisions of this article requiring contracts to be awarded after advertising and competitive bidding, including the splitting of projects into smaller work orders, the amendment of existing contracts, or the approval of a subcontract or subcontracts let under existing contracts. Every person who willfully violates this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

6. Senate Bill 1029 requires the California High-Speed Rail Authority to provide “an analysis of the net impact of the high-speed rail program on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Realize that the construction of the California High-Speed Rail will result in significant greenhouse gas emissions from the diesel equipment used to build it. The Teamsters union was so “concerned” about greenhouse gas emissions in the Central Valley area where the first segment will be built that it filed a lawsuit in 2011 challenging the construction of a distribution facility in Visalia (where truck drivers would not necessarily be unionized).

In addition, the draft Environmental Impact Report for this project indicates that the California High-Speed Rail program may use diesel-powered switch locomotives associated with maintenance-of-way activities. See California High-Speed Train Project EIR/EIS – Fresno to Bakersfield Section – 3.3 Air Quality and Global Climate Change. (How could this be? I thought this High-Speed Rail was going to save the planet!)

The home page for California High-Speed Rail declares that “California Is Thinking Big Again.” I’ve only scratched the surface of a few of many issues involving this project, and I’m thinking California Is in Big Trouble if this project continues.

2 comments

  1. personification_personified says:

    It will be great news for California if Balgenorth and Brown are denied their legacies.

  2. Ken Kreischer says:

    While I’m against the High-Speed Rail I will comment to defend design-build as a procurement method. There can be benefits to the Owner, public or private, to have one responsible party for design and construction vs. one party responsible for design and another for construction. Delivery of the final product can in most cases be faster with design-build and should be more cost effective for all parties. The criteria for selection of contractors are of course essential to maintain a level playing field, prevent cronyism and protect the interest of the taxpayer on public projects but lowest price is not always the best value.

    Would you rather have a contractor who bid on 6 widgets at $100 each, to only find out there are actually 10 needed and they cost $120 each; or the contractor who knew 10 where needed and that they will cost $120. The first had the lowest price, but will you get the best value in the long run. That is a simple example of something that in real life has many variables but my point is that even for public works projects lowest price does not always equate to best value; thus to get the best value you may not always want the lowest price whether you are a tax payer, owner, builder or contractor.