Cost of Purple Line light rail project rises

Building a 16-mile Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will take two years longer and cost $135 million more than previous estimates, Maryland officials say.

The light-rail line, a project of the Maryland Transit Administration, is now predicted to cost $1.93 billion — up from the $1.79 billion the state estimated in July 2009. Cost estimates have risen because of design changes and the fact that the line is now forecast to open in 2020 instead of 2018, adding two years of adjustments for inflation, according to state officials.

The new estimate also reflects a 3 percent annual inflation rate rather than a 2.8 percent rate, a change suggested by federal transit officials who will decide whether the project is eligible for federal funding.

The east-west rail line would connect New Carrollton with Bethesda via College Park and Silver Spring, mostly along local streets.

Maryland transportation officials revealed the rising cost estimate, first reported by the Washington Examiner, in a May 11 letter to the region’s Transportation Planning Board. The board, an arm of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, uses those cost estimates to ensure that the region’s long-term transportation plan is affordable. Federal rules require that estimates in regional plans be adjusted for inflation.

The state plans to make up the difference in Purple Line cost estimates with $135 million now designated to future Maryland Area Regional Commuter rail projects. Terry Owens, spokesman for the MTA, said that money was for MARC projects more than six years out “that haven’t matured yet.” He said he did not have specifics on those projects.

Maryland officials have asked the Transportation Planning Board to accept their higher projections when it meets Wednesday. In 2009, the board accepted an increase in the cost estimate from $1.68 billion to $1.79 billion.

The state’s financial plan assumes that the federal government will cover half — or $962 million — of the construction costs, according to the letter from Donald A. Halligan, director of the Maryland transportation department’s planning office.

The state expects to receive permission from the Federal Transit Administration in June to begin preliminary engineering, the letter says. Any federal funding would then have to be voted on by Congress.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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