Light train coming

Maryland has its P3 law in place, and a good debut project lined up

It wasn’t long after Maryland finally got its enabling public-private partnership (PPP; P3) legislation that the ‘Old Line State’ put its first potential PPP out to bid. 

The US mid-Atlantic state signed off on the ‘Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013’ in the week beginning April 8. That same week, a request for information (RFI) asking the private sector for input on a light rail transit (LRT) project, was published.

The passage of the pro-P3 bill, as well as the choice of project, is a win both for transportation infrastructure in the state – a tiny but densely populated territory – and for Annapolis.

Firstly, the selected PPP itself is a two-part project to deliver the 16-mile ‘National Capital Purple Line’ costing $2.5 billion, and the 14-mile ‘Baltimore Red Line,’ worth $1.8 billion.

The LRT project was devised for transit congestion relief. The deadline for the RFI is Wednesday, May 8. Construction should begin in 2015, with services set to commence in 2020.

But the RFI has a larger political significance for Maryland. Light rail is politically neutral, and designating the Baltimore-area Purple Line/Red Line project as the maiden public-private infrastructure undertaking for the state, in the wake of its newly approved PPP law, is politically astute.

Then there’s the legislation. Maryland had been attempting to pass pro-P3 law for a while. This time, the state got it right.

No baggage

Unlike high-speed rail (HSR), light rail does not have baggage on Capitol Hill.

In 2009, the Obama administration unveiled a federal funding programme for HSR. US President Barack Obama called for $15 billion for a “new era” in rail transportation meant to harken back to the advent of the US interstate under President Dwight Eisenhower.

But Obama, in making HSR a centrepiece of his infrastructure programme under the ‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,’ has faced opposition. There is concern about the amount of funding HSR has received as opposed to traditional rail, and doubts about the role of high-speed rail as an important element of the national transportation network in the US have arisen.

Light rail, meanwhile, is geared to a short-distance commute and is electrically powered. LRT is safer, and has already gained a foothold in the US, such as with the Denver LRT system and the current light rail project in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Light rail also has the advantage of being a ‘greenfield’ undertaking, rather than a toll road or parking concession that would impose a new cost on the public in exchange for an old service. For a municipality considering P3 use, earmarking a non-offensive project, like light rail or energy conservation, is an easy lead-in to building a larger P3 programme.

The legislation

Maryland is the 34th US state with a law for P3 use.

The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 has been hailed as a success for Governor Martin O’Malley and Anthony Brown.

In the past, P3 legislation had fallen victim to partisan wrangling over the state budget, but the General Assembly passed the P3 bill just before the end of its legislative session.

Unlike in the past, the legislation is strong. The 2013 Act is based on simple language, and is flexible enough for P3s to take place on a case-by-case basis.

While the goal of the law, according to Maryland, is to install a “strong, predictable and transparent framework,” the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) will be in charge of procurement.

After a long false start, private investment in public transportation infrastructure in Maryland is underway.