The Purple Line, the proposed 16-mile light rail transit system extending from New Carrollton to Bethesda, could be missing one vital component for its progression: funding.
With the Maryland budget in crisis and a congressional stalemate over highway funding, the Purple Line’s construction could be pushed back, although several officials interviewed about the project would not predict how long the delay might be.
The federal government approved preliminary engineering for the project in October, qualifying it for funding through New Starts, a federal program for new transit projects such as the Purple Line, bringing it a significant step closer to construction.
From there, cost estimates and construction schedules could be fine-tuned for the 21-station line, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2015 and open in 2020 at the earliest.
The $1.93 billion project, to be a 50-50 split between the federal government and Maryland, currently has $23 million from the state for FY12 and $3 million from New Starts, according to Maryland Transit Association Purple Line project manager, Michael Madden.
Although the Purple Line has qualified for the New Starts program, there are a number of other projects around the country that are in line ahead of it, according to the Federal Transit Administration annual report on funding recommendations for FY13. Those must move through the pipeline first.
The project cannot receive full construction funding until it has reached the final design phase and Congress has appropriated money to the Purple Line. The final design is scheduled to begin in 2013, according to Madden.
An important source of the Purple Line’s funds lies in the hands of Congress and the reauthorization of the federal transportation legislation, which is currently in limbo between the Senate and House. If the bill passes, highly unlikely in an election year, highway and transit aid will avoid steep cutbacks, and that would affect how quickly the Purple Line can receive funding. The current bill expires on June 30.
If federal funds fall short, it would be “a situation where the project wouldn’t be able to move forward,” said Aubrey Thagard, spokesman for the Economic Development and Public Infrastructure of Prince George’s County. “If federal funds fall through, that definitely will put things in jeopardy.”
Complicating matters is the budget crisis in the state.
For the fiscal years of 2012 and 2013, Maryland has allocated $70 million for the project, according to Madden, but future years' funding will depend on a new revenue stream.
“Right now where (the budget) stands, a lot of transportation projects will be put on hold,” Raquel Gillory, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed a gas tax in March, which “would have brought in funding for numerous transportation projects, the Purple Line being one of them,” Gillory said. However, the proposal was shot down in the General Assembly.
“That’s a problem,” Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner admitted in an interview.
Added Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett: “Given what the state’s transportation fund numbers are now, there’s no way we can fulfill any of the major transportation projects throughout the state unless there’s some additional revenue.”
Montgomery County is doing its part: it included in its capital budget $27.6 million for the reconstruction of the Capital Crescent Trail, so that it would be parallel to the Purple Line, and $60 million for the construction of a new south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, according to the Montgomery County Capital Budget.
County funds were not assumed in the original financial plan, so that’s a plus, according to MTA spokesman Terry Owens.
Those are the first funds explicitly dedicated to the construction of the project, Bennett said. The state and federal governments are currently at a standstill for finding funds for the project.
The project’s funding through 2015, aside from the $3 million earmark from the federal New Starts program, will be up to the state, according to an FTA official. To receive additional federal funding, the MTA and FTA will need to reach something called a Full Funding Grant Agreement. Negotiations for the agreement cannot begin until the project has completed the federal environmental review and reached the final design phase which can take up to two years, according to the FTA official.
O’Malley has scheduled a special session of the General Assembly to tackle the budget crisis starting Monday. But the General Assembly’s initial rejection of the gas tax, experts agree, hurts the Purple Line. There is no plan to bring up the gas tax, said Takirra Winfield, O’Malley’s deputy press secretary.
“You can’t get something for nothing,” said Ralph Bennett, president of Purple Line Now. “The roads and the rail projects need to be funded and we have to find a way to do it.”