Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday the state will move forward with the Purple Line.
The Republican governor made his decision after months of speculation about whether he’ll kill the $2.45 billion light-rail project.
Hogan said the state will fund the project with $168 million, “a fraction” of the cost of what could have been up to a $700 million state investment. The governor said he will ask Montgomery County and Prince George’s County to increase the size of their investments.
“The Purple Line is a long-term investment and will be an important economic driver for Maryland,” Hogan said. “It will be built in a part of our state that has demonstrated strong support and use of public transit.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the alignment will remain the same. He said elements of the project have been cut to make it more of a “Chevy” than a “Cadillac.”
The roughly $300 million in cut costs include making train headways 7 and a half minutes instead of 6 minutes. Rahn said that will allow for the system to have fewer light rail cars and one fewer storage area for those cars.
Rahn said the four private partners working on bids to construct the project will start their final proposals after meeting with state officials to discuss changes to the project. He said the state will take about 120 to 150 days until officials are in a position to accept the final proposals. He said the project will take about 5 years to build.
The project got its start as a proposal for a trolley running along an abandoned railroad line—known as the Georgetown Branch—about 30 years ago.
Since then the project has ballooned in scope to a 16-mile train system linking Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. Its 21 stations would include locations in downtown Silver Spring and at the University of Maryland. The project is designed to connect neighborhoods in southern Montgomery and Prince George’s counties with employment centers like Bethesda, Silver Spring and College Park.
Over the years the project has gone through name and design changes. Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich dubbed it the “Bi-County Transitway” and also attempted to have it turned from a rail system to a bus system to reduce costs. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley restored the Purple Line name after defeating Ehrlich in 2006. In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly approved a gas tax increase to raise funds to build transportation projects, including the Purple Line.
But Hogan put the project back into limbo when he was elected in November. The governor frequently criticized the project for being too expensive while on the campaign trail last year.
After taking office, Hogan stayed largely quiet on the project, except for an interview in May with The Washington Post in which he said the price of project is not acceptable. In June, the newspaper reported the state’s transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, was backing the project, but only if costs could be reduced.
Since Hogan took office, supporters of the Purple Line have focused on its business development potential. Business groups as well as transit advocacy groups have lobbied the governor by saying the light-rail is likely to spur development along its route and bring jobs to the state—a key campaign promise of Hogan’s.
Previously, advocates highlighted the route’s potential to alleviate the congestion on the overtaxed roadways of southern Maryland.
The project has long been derided by opponents. A Wall Street Journal columnist questioned the ridership numbers. The Town of Chevy Chase spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against it. The county and state had to iron out an agreement with Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase to mitigate the rail line’s impact on its property.
Even a tiny shrimp-like creature—an endangered amphipod—has gotten caught up in the controversy surrounding the project. The amphipod is the subject of a federal lawsuit contesting that the project will damage the critter’s habitat, a possible violation of the Endangered Species Act.
If the light-rail train is built, the Maryland Transit Administration estimates it will carry about 58,000 riders per day if it opens as scheduled in 2020 and ridership could rise to 74,000 by 2040.
Under the most recent cost-sharing plan, the state would split the costs with the federal government, and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties as well as the private contractor that would be picked to build the rail line. The state had previously planned to commit around $700 million, the federal government had planned to kick in another $900 million and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties planned to pay $120 million each. The remainder of the cost will be financed by private financing; which will come from the private partner that is awarded the contract to build and operate the system. The loan would be paid back by taxpayers over time as well as through transit fares. The state has estimated the line will cost about $55 million per year to operate.
It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday how the cost sharing will change.
The Purple Line is one of two major transportation initiatives being pursued currently in the county, with the other being a network of bus rapid transit routes that have also been running into political opposition.