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Hazy Future for Purple Line Funding

State funding hurting from gas tax rejection. Future federal funding uncertain until 2015.

 

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.

Federal funding:

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.”

State funding:

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.”

For more on the Purple Line, check out our series.

KatieSilverSpring May 15, 2012 at 12:44 PM
"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, “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.” " And the way to find it is to get a grip on the budget and cut out some of that unnecessary crap, those pet projects.
Henriot St. Gerard May 15, 2012 at 02:21 PM
Interesting how County funds were not assumed in the plan, yet the Council decides to fork over $60 million for the Bethesda South entrance. Since the entire project has been up in the air for a while, I dont get how and why construction for the south entrance was such a pressing need.
jag May 15, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Red Line in Baltimore will almost certainly take priority over the Purple Line and MoCo's BRT. Wouldn't be surprised if Purple Line construction doesn't start until 2020. Of course, that's the pessimist in me and hopefully I'm wrong.
Commentous May 15, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Certain Council Members really love the Purple Line idea and will immediately spend any amount of $ towards it. Other Council Members will let it go through to appease the first Council Members in exchange for votes on other things. On a side note, unfortunately for you and me, Wheaton residents had NO Council Members willing to represent the interests of the residents here. Hence, the WRAC's recommendations, which were public and put together with several stakeholders over more than a year, were disregarded entirely. Only afterwards did Council Members meet with the WRAC to try to rationalize their disregard. Publicly, they acted as if they did Wheaton a favor by planning a county building full of drivers (M-NCPPC has easliy more than 1 agency vehicle per 2 employees) on Wheaton's best space at the Metro. Though I believe the Council has shown a total disregard for Wheaton resident's interests, I have to credit Hans Riemer for at least showing up at the WRAC meetings after the Council sold us down the river. It was more than the other Council Members, including the one representing our area (Nancy Navarro). Still, for someone so concerned with the Purple Line and public transportation, I'm not sure why Council Member Riemer is so enthralled with the idea of putting an agency filled with car drivers right at the Wheaton Metro. This has been another unfortuante lesson in politics.
Kate May 16, 2012 at 04:21 AM
As a true trail lover, we can only hope that the government finds something better to do with $2B. Schools anyone?
KatieSilverSpring May 16, 2012 at 12:04 PM
lower taxes anyone? tax refund anyone?
L Will May 16, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Not mentioned in this article is that the cost for a replacement trail has almost quadrupled to $100 million (without factoring in the cost of requirements such as lighting, more over runs, etc.) The county had painfully agreed to a $25 million price tag. What is going to be cut next to fund this outdated, misaligned, bloated project? Stop throwing money at a bad idea.
Jim Hutzler May 24, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Simply put, the Purple Line LRT should go ahead. The benefits will be huge. This is the ideal corridor for light rail. Sorry, bus just won't cut it. When we build 1.5 billion dollar highway interchanges, 2 billion for this transit line for the future is money very well spent! This has been proven in the DC area (witness the incredibile success of the Arlington Orange Line corridor), and numerous places around the world. Or..... we can go "cheap" and get nothing. Greatness indeed requires investment. Good things don;t come for free. Investment in the Purple Line will be worth it's wait in gold for Montgomery and PG Counties!
DPS July 19, 2012 at 06:15 PM
The state is in huge financial crises, as well as the county, and the federal government is flat broke and deep in debt (about $5 trillion). As of May 2011 the largest single holder of U.S. government debt was China, with 26 percent of all foreign-held U.S. Treasury securities (8% of total U.S. public debt). Sooooo, where will the money come from to pay for the Purple Line, China?
jag July 19, 2012 at 06:33 PM
What an odd collection of "facts" (look any of them up, they're all off...by a lot). Debt is 15 trillion not 5. China is nowhere near the largest single holder of USgov debt. They're the largest foreign holder of securities (very barely beating out Japan, I believe), if that's what you're trying to say. Besides, who cares who owns our crappy T-bills? They pay out basically nothing; they're a horrific investment. China is very much not getting rich off our debt.

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