Purple Line takes back seat to roads, bridges

Only $168m has been allocated to Maryland's Purple Line, requiring a streamlined version of the light rail project already in procurement.

While the state of Maryland will now have $1.97 billion at its disposal to invest in transportation infrastructure, it emerged last week that the fate of the Purple Line project, which is already being procured as a public-private partnership (PPP; P3), is being called into question. The state indeed announced on Thursday that it would only contribute $168 million to the project – dramatically lower than the $700 million previously estimated.

“During my campaign last year and ever since, since I’d become governor, and since I was elected, I’ve made it very clear that building, maintaining and fixing Maryland’s roads and bridges is our top transportation priority and it is a top priority of our administration,” Governor Larry Hogan, who assumed office this past January, said during a news conference.

According to Hogan, around $1.4 billion will go towards upgrading the state highway system, including repaving roads, fixing structurally deficient bridges, as well as improving roadways and pedestrian safety. An additional $845 million is earmarked for the construction of new highways and bridges.

“With the actions that we’re taking today, and the future of our highways secure and finally appropriately funded, we can now turn our attention to other transit issues,” Hogan said.

One of those issues is the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail line running east-west inside the Capital Beltway – between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County – with 21 stations planned.

However, the state will only be contributing $168 million to the Purple Line compared to the $700 million originally estimated under the previous administration. As a result, Hogan has asked the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) to move forward with a more cost-effective and streamlined version of the project, according to a statement released by his office.

The project, which as of March 2014 was estimated to cost $2.37 billion, is already in the process of being procured as a P3. In January 2014, MDOT and the Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) announced the selection of four short-listed teams. At the time, the two agencies said that a Request for Proposal (RFP) would be issued in the spring of the same year.

While procurement has not progressed since, the four shortlisted teams – Maryland Purple Partners, Maryland Transit Connectors, Purple Line Partners and Purple Plus Alliance – are still competing for the project, MTA spokesperson Paul Shepard told Infrastructure Investor.

Asked what the next step was and whether the bidding teams would have to reassess their proposals, Shepard said it was too early to tell, while the governor’s office referred Infrastructure Investor to MDOT. A spokesperson from the state transportation agency had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

According to Hogan’s comments, however, it seems that the short-listed teams may very well have to revise their proposals. “We will be counting on our partners in the private sector to deliver proposals that meet our new vision for the project,” he said during the press conference.

Other contingencies that must be fulfilled before the project can proceed include the availability of up to $900 million in federal funding and an increased investment on the part of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which are expected to benefit most from the project.

The Red Line, however, another 14.1-mile light rail project for which procurement has not begun, “is not going to be built” as currently designed, Hogan confirmed.

“I’m committed to promoting economic development in Baltimore, but the Red Line as currently proposed is not the best way to bring jobs and opportunity to the city,” the governor said, noting that the project would cost around $3 billion without integrating effectively with Baltimore’s existing infrastructure.

The Purple Line on the other hand “will integrate seamlessly with our current transit systems,” Hogan said and will be built in a part of the state that has shown strong support and use of public transit.