Despite the looming collapse of the public-private partnership behind the problem-plagued Purple Line light rail project, Maryland’s transportation agencies are pressing ahead with a separate P3 initiative to add four tolled Express Lanes to portions of the I-495 Capital Beltway and I-270 outside Washington, D.C.

On July 17, the state Dept. of Transportation officially shortlisted all four P3 teams that had expressed interest in the highway project, which includes a 50-year toll revenue collection concession to recoup the estimated $11-billion construction cost.

The Beltway/I-270 announcement comes less than a week before a state-imposed July 23 deadline for the Purple Line’s development joint venture to not implement its planned mid-August departure from the troubled $2-billion rail project across the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C..

Last month, Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), which includes Fluor Corp., Meridiam and Star America as equity partners, claimed that repeated lawsuits, permit issues and other complications that have delayed the project by more than a year were beyond the joint venture’s control, clearing the way for the consortium to terminate its P3 agreement as of Aug. 23.

PLTP’s termination date coincides with the previously announced departure of the Fluor-led Purple Line Construction Partners design-build team, which cited similar issues in justifying its own withdrawal from the project, announced in mid-May.

Maryland counters that PLTP’s withdrawal would be tantamount to default, and that the joint venture remains obligated to either keep the current construction team on the job or find a qualified replacement. Despite the public acrimony, all sides reportedly have spent the last several weeks attempting to resolve the dispute through negotiation.

Construction activity also has continued along the 16.2-mile route, although the design-build team promised to secure all work sites prior to departing the project.

The difficulties executing the Purple Line P3 have made many state legislators and local leaders wary of attempting a similar approach to expand two heavily traveled regional freeways located in densely developed corridors, and collaborating with Virginia to expand an existing Potomac River crossing.

The project’s draft environmental impact statement, issued for public comment on July 10, contains no projected effects on traffic volume or toll revenue resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. The Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission also has faulted the document for not going far enough to address the project’s environmental, stormwater and social justice aspects.

Formal proposals for the Beltway and I-270 expansion projects are to be submitted in early 2021, after which MDOT will select a preferred development team. Design and construction would get underway following a NEPA record of decision.

Jonathan Gifford, director of the Center for Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., notes project risk differences.

"Revenue really matters. The Beltway/I-270 toll lanes have the potential to be largely or completely self supporting, which can attract a different cadre of developers to the table," he says. "Risks to the state are really quite different between the two projects. I’m sure Maryland is taking the lessons from the Purple Line into account in its procurement strategy for the toll projects."

According to Gifford: "Right-of-way risk is different. The Purple Line is almost entirely on new right-of-way, crossing sensitive areas. The Beltway is much less so, although not zero. Innovative design may help reduce right-of-way needs even further. Also, revenue risk is on the developer, vs much financial risk on the state for the Purple Line."

He also says highway operations and management risk is "very different" than transit O&M risk. "The Purple Line has to consider rail vehicles; the Beltway doesn't."

The four shortlisted teams for the Beltway and I-270 expansion are:

  • Accelerate MarylandExpress Partners

Lead developer/equity: Itinera Infrastructure & Concessions

Lead contractors: Halmar International and Itinera

Designers: Atkins North America and Gannett Fleming

  • Accelerate Maryland Partners

Lead developer/equity: Transurban (USA) Operations and Macquarie Infrastructure Developments

Lead contractor: Archer Western Construction

Designers: Dewberry Engineers and Stantec Consulting Services

  • Capital Express Mobility Partners

Lead developers/equity: Cintra Global, Meridiam Capital Express and John Laing Investments Ltd.

Lead contractor Ferrovial Agroman US

Designer: AECOM Technical Services

  • Potomac Mobility Group

Lead Project Developer / Equity: ACS Infrastructure Development, Inc.

Lead contractor: Dragados USA

Designer: Parsons Transportation Group Inc., Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., and HDR Engineering Inc.