End of the line for Maryland’s light-rail project

After years of delays and recent months of legal wrangling, the private consortium selected to develop the $5.6bn light-rail project is walking away.

This Halloween season, the State of Maryland has sent the Purple Line public-private partnership to its grave.

What’s likely to be the final nail in the coffin for the project – or at least this version of it – was driven home earlier this month when the Maryland Transit Administration assumed development and management contracts for the $5.6 billion light-rail system, as well as the $800 million in unpaid cost overruns that ultimately felled it.

Purple Line Transit Partners – the private consortium led by Texas-based Fluor Corporation and French manager Meridiam – have officially walked away. To be fair, the project had been comatose since mid-September, when a Baltimore judge ruled that the consortium had a legal right to quit.

But even before that, the Purple Line had been transformed from a promising vision of a public-private infrastructure collaboration into a legal calamity.

Procurement of the 16.2-mile transit system began in 2013, but was almost immediately challenged by a group called Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail. After years of lawsuits which countlessly stopped and restarted construction, the delays and additional costs became too much for the private sector to bear. In May, the development group hired to build the project issued a notice stating its plans to quit.

Now, even as Maryland officials insist that negotiations with PLTP are still ongoing, all that’s left to do is examine the wreckage and take stock. Everyone will be asking what are the ‘lessons learned’ from one of the most spectacular PPP collapses in the US.

For starters, there are miles of unfinished tracks carving up neighbourhoods in the counties of Montgomery and Prince George’s, which residents are likely to be eager to see completed – something Maryland has committed to doing, no matter what. “We have to continue to deliver the Purple Line for the citizens of Maryland and protect the state’s interest which includes ensuring construction continues,” Maryland transportation secretary Gregory Slater said in a statement.

Maryland is also left now responsible for managing contracts to manufacture the light-rail vehicles and for the eventual operations and maintenance of the rail line, along with 233 design and construction contracts.

The state will now need to reconsider and modify its position on how the Purple Line is to be built and managed. Most importantly, it needs to rethink how it plans to work with private partners if it wants to attract another contractor for this project or any future endeavours.