The Electrical Worker online
January 2013

IBEW Helps Make D.C.'s Biggest
Rail Project a Reality
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Washington, D.C., is home to the second largest public transportation system in the country, but residents catching a flight out of Dulles International Airport still have to put up with lengthy rides in some of the worst traffic in the nation to get there. Located in the far reaches of the Northern Virginia suburbs, Dulles is more than 13 miles from the nearest Metro station. But soon the trip will be as easy as jumping on the subway.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is in the midst of its largest expansion in its 36-year history with the construction of the Silver Line, which will connect the airport to the D.C. metro area.

Once completed, the 23-mile rail line will run from the District of Columbia to Loudon County, relieving traffic and giving the more than 11 million passengers who pass through Dulles each year an easier, more convenient way to make their flights.

Long advocated by elected officials, business leaders and transportation experts, the project finally broke ground in 2009.

Containing 29 stations, the Silver Line is expected to be a boon for Northern Virginia, bringing tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new business activity to this rapidly growing region — not to mention boosting property values and raising millions in new revenue for county and state coffers.

"It is really going to revitalize the area," says Washington, D.C., Local 26 Business Manager Chuck Graham.

It also means steady work for electricians, operating engineers, laborers and thousands of construction workers who have been hard at work building the region's most high-profile transportation project.

Today, more than 250 Washington, D.C., Local 26 members are at work finishing up the first phase of the project, an 11-mile stretch connecting the Virginia suburbs of West Falls Church to Reston in the western part of Fairfax County.

The opening is scheduled for this summer.

'Safety is Key'

Local 26 members installed the feeder cables, powering the line's third rail. They also installed all the wiring for the systems that monitor the trains' movement, including control switches and track signals, as well as detection warning devices that alert operators of track obstructions.

On a job this size, with numerous potential hazards, safety was the top priority. The line runs through Tysons Corner, a bustling business center in Northern Virginia, then up the median of the expressway leading to the airport.

"It is no small feat working in the center of an extremely busy highway," Graham says.

Workers were required to undergo more than seven hours of safety training before setting foot on the job site. Nearly 40 safety classes have been offered during construction, covering everything from environmental hazards to basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration training.

The IBEW also participated in an on-the-job safety program — People Based Safety — which recruited observers from each craft to provide feedback to their co-workers, submit weekly reports on safety practices and make recommendations.

Dulles Transit Partners, LLC — a partnership between Bechtel and URS, two of the world's largest construction firms — is the main contractor for the job.

"Safety is huge," says Local 26 member Diane Spilman, who serves as a foreman on the project. "It's good to work for a company that tells you, 'If it feels dangerous, don't do it,' and will back you up."

Spilman and her crew pulled cable throughout the highway median, working one mile at a time. Being so far from the main station meant frequent trips back to Washington, D.C., for equipment.

Spilman, who was out of work for two years before going to work on the Silver Line, says the project has been a great opportunity for her and her co-workers. And as a Northern Virginia resident, she says she looks forward to spending less time in traffic.

Political Brawl

The second and final phase connecting the train to the airport is expected to be operational by 2018, doubling the number of passengers passing though Dulles each year, said airport manager Chris Browne in an interview with the Ashburn Patch newspaper.

Contracts for Phase 2 won't be awarded until late this year. Despite the success of Phase 1, the second part of the project turned into a partisan brawl last spring, thanks to the efforts of the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors and allied right-wing activists. The group — along with Republican officials in Loudon County, home to Dulles — threatened to derail the Silver Line unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is responsible for the project, rescinded the use of project labor agreements.

"There were some politicians who didn't like unions, and saw this as a chance to score points," says Local 26's Graham, who noted that Dulles Transit voluntarily entered into a PLA to have enough skilled and experienced workers on the project.

"What's ridiculous is that there aren't many nonunion electrical contractors around here who can handle a job this size, and they know it."

Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein agreed. "There are only a dozen firms that are big and experienced enough to the manage a transit project of this size and complexity, and all of them… are either union shops or have long since learned to operate in both union and nonunion environments," he wrote last spring. "So what are we arguing about here? Politics. Ideology. Certainly nothing that is worth risking the most important economic development in the region."

The anti-PLA effort was taken up by Republicans in Richmond, including Gov. Robert McDonnell, who made it a condition for his state's continued participation. The MWAA gave in to their demands.

Despite the loss, the Silver Line is still covered under the Davis-Bacon act, guaranteeing competitive wage and benefits regardless of who gets the contract. "I don't see us getting hurt by the decision," says Graham.

The Local 26 business manager is proud of the work performed by his members, and says the IBEW's commitment to quality and on-time construction makes him hopeful that the union will be back for Phase 2 of the Silver Line.

"They are doing a damn good job," he says. "We are ahead of schedule and under budget."


Washington, D.C., Local 26 members on the job completing Phase 1 of the Silver Line subway project. Standing from left are Business Manager Chuck Graham, Kevin Reeder, Thomas Campbell, Greg Roling, Raymond Picolo, H. Wayne Duckworth and Melvin Cherry. Kneeling are Juan Carlos, left, Diane Spilman and Floyd Wood.


Safety was the priority for Washington, D.C. Local 26 members and signatory contractors.


IBEW crews pulled miles of feeder cable to power the Silver Line's third rail.