While everyone (well, mostly) cheered when Governor Larry Hogan announced he would proceed with the Purple Line late last month, the trick now is finding the money to pay for all the funding the State is backing away from, and to maintain as much of the federal funding commitment of $900 million as possible. As Katherine Shaver of the Post notes in her excellent article this morning, there’s a lot of moving parts that need to be resolved in a short period of time in order for this to work.
The celebration after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s approval last month of a light-rail Purple Line for the Washington suburbs has given way to hand-wringing over whether his financial conditions can be met.
New figures provided by the Maryland Department of Transportation show a $170 million gap between its latest estimated construction cost — $2.16 billion, down from $2.45 billion — and the amount of funding lined up. MDOT officials emphasized that the dollar figures are “working numbers” that will change by the time a contract is awarded, but the question of who will cover any shortfall — and how — has added a layer of uncertainty.
“This is not a done deal,” said state Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s transportation subcommittee. “The fact that the governor said we’re moving forward doesn’t make it so until all the other pieces of the puzzle fit together. . . . There’s still a multitude of questions that need to be answered to be able to say definitively this project will be built in the near future.”
With the delays incurred as a result of Hogan’s review of the project and now the need to rework the details substantially, a lot of details need to be worked out in a short time so that a contract can be awarded and construction can start in less than a year. The process, however, won’t exactly be taking place in the sunlight.
Although the project remains alive, the significant cut in state funds means that substantial and complex parts of the project — its financial plan and what a scaled-back rail line would look like — must be reworked. MDOT released a 2,075-page revised bid solicitation last week.
The project, previously on pace to have construction start this year and trains running in 2020, is now almost a year behind schedule.
Timing is critical. The project won’t receive any federal construction money until the state signs a funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. But the FTA won’t sign an agreement until Maryland has a final plan detailing the project’s costs and who will pay for what.
Many of the details will be hashed out behind closed doors over the next four months as the four teams of private companies competing for a 35-year contract to design, build, operate and maintain the Purple Line incorporate Hogan’s cost-cutting changes into their bids.
The proposals will reveal how much a slimmed-down project would cost to build and operate and how much of the construction expenses the private sector is willing to finance. But the public likely won’t hear much until the state selects a winning proposal early next year. Bid documents, MDOT officials say, are exempt from the state public records law.
Finally, where are Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties going to come up with more money to pay for this while the state cuts back its commitments? While $50 million more per county has been discussed, that number is no firmer than any of the other figures being tossed around.
Feldman, the state senator, said he is concerned that Hogan’s requirement that the counties pitch in more will threaten the Purple Line’s financial viability. He noted that the governor has not required local governments to help fund state highway projects.
“Does the governor really want to build the [Purple Line] project, or did he set this up as a mechanism that’s very difficult to make work?” Feldman said. “Then the governor could say he supported the project, but if the locals can’t come up with the money, [he could say] they lacked the political will.”
The behind the scenes jockeying to lock in a viable agreement over the next several months is going to be intense. If the information is available I’ll do my best to keep up with this story. The Purple Line is a needed and beneficial project, but there’s a limit. The more it gets cut at one end, sacrificing the quality of the project and its usefulness, and the more county taxpayers are asked to pay on the other end, the closer we get to the point where this become no longer worth it as a transit project. I don’t claim to know where that precise point is right now, but it’s a question that has to be asked.