If all goes as planned, next summer should see work on the Purple Line across Maryland’s DC suburbs well underway. The RFP issued recently by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) calls for selecting a P3 team to design, build, finance, and operate the 16.2-mile light rail line by January 15, 2016, with a construction start date of May 16.
How big of an “if” this proves to be will hinge, as it so often does, on money.
In granting conditional approval of the $2.16 billion project last month, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a longtime Purple Line critic set ground rules aimed at reducing Maryland’s financial commitment from the original figure of $700 million to less than $170 million.
Among them were reductions in the system’s design and operation, and increased participation by Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, which share the Purple Line’s planned right-of-way. The two counties were already on the hook for approximately $240 million.
Two pieces of that puzzle appear to have fallen into place. Some of the $215 million in design changes identified by the state include “plain” finish retaining walls, reduced landscaping requirements, optional use of “Green track” to control stormwater, fewer recordable data points for train event recorders, and greater flexibility in scheduling work and traffic lane closures. Financial and technical proposals, which were to have been evaluated equally, will now be tilted in favor of the former.
Another $75 million will be saved, according to the state, by accelerated payments and simplified reporting requirements.
As for increased local participation, Montgomery County will ante up another $40 million, as long as it’s not needed for several years. Less certain is whether Prince George’s County will follow suit. Though its county executive initially scoffed at the idea of contributing more to the Purple Line, the two sides have reportedly been in negotiations.
There are other uncertainties. While the Purple Line had been recommended to receive $900 million in FTA New Starts funding, the protracted process of finalizing the project’s financial plan means it will miss out on its FY2015 $100 million grant, compounding concerns that the batted-around budget still doesn’t add up.
Given transit’s still sketchy future in any short- or long-term federal transportation funding bill, not to mention other transit projects that may be on firmer ground, the availability of that $900 million is hardly certain.
Still, a Purple Line project dogged by budgetary uncertainty is better than no project at all. Baltimore is still trying to figure out its next move following Gov. Hogan’s shelving of the $2.9 billion Red Line project. While it too had received a New Starts funding recommendation, Gov. Hogan said the project made “no financial sense,” particularly given the $1 billion tunnel required to get the east-west line through downtown.
Gov. Hogan insists that Baltimore is neither being ignored nor penalized after the May riots, and that he and state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn are willing to discuss cost-effective alternatives. However, any money that had been set aside for the Red Line has been redirected to other surface transportation projects.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has also ordered an expedited assessment of regional alternatives, which is due this fall. Those options could include a Purple Line-like surface-only transit system, bus rapid transit, or rerouting of existing city bus lines.