Maryland’s Purple Line lags behind Baltimore rail project in federal review

October 13, 2011

The Obama administration’s announcement this week that a Baltimore light-rail project will get an expedited environmental review does not affect the timeline for a Purple Line transit link planned for the Washington suburbs, a top Maryland transit official said Thursday.

The Maryland Transit Administration still plans to seek federal and state construction money for a Baltimore Red Line, a proposed east-west light-rail project, and a Purple Line simultaneously, said Henry Kay, who oversees transit projects for the state. Streamlining the federal environmental review and permit process could cut two years off Red Line planning.

“The environmental review is just one part of what we need to do,” Kay said. “I don’t think by extension you can say a Purple Line will open two years later than a Red Line.”

The Red Line’s good news has caused a stir on both sides of the Purple Line debate, with supporters seeking assurances from state officials that the project isn’t falling behind and opponents saying it signals potential pitfalls in the plan, which envisions a 16-mile light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Many Washington area officials are eyeing a Red Line as the Purple Line’s biggest immediate rival for scarce money. While saying publicly that Maryland needs both projects, many say privately that it will be difficult to persuade the Federal Transit Administration to approve — and just as hard to persuade Congress to fund — construction of two major Maryland transit projects simultaneously.

Federal transit money is already highly competitive nationwide, and congressional leaders might cut it in the next long-term transportation bill. Maryland’s transportation budgets have also been slashed.

A potential Purple Line won significant federal endorsement last week, when the FTA approved it to advance to the stage of preliminary engineering — permission that the Red Line received in June.

With both light-rail lines at least a decade from opening, Kay said, both schedules could vary widely depending on any problems that arise during design, land acquisition and construction.

For example, Kay said, a 14-mile Red Line, estimated to cost $2.2 billion, would be more challenging to design and build because it includes four miles of tunnels and five underground stations. A Purple Line, estimated at $1.93 billion, would be primarily aboveground. Both face community opposition along their densely populated routes.

The White House’s decision to fast-track a Red Line “doesn’t imply some kind of choice or preference on our part or on the part of the feds,” Kay said.

It was FTA officials, not state transit planners, who submitted the Red Line to the White House for special consideration, Kay said. He said FTA officials called the MTA on Sept. 26 seeking more Red Line data, including how many jobs it would create.

An FTA spokesman speaking on the condition of anonymity said he couldn’t predict the timing of either project because of the many factors determining the speed at which proposals move through the federal funding process, which can take more than a decade.

The Red Line was one of 14 infrastructure projects across the country that the White House named Monday that would receive expedited environmental review to create jobs quickly. Other projects included a mixed-use development in the District’s Shaw neighborhood.

A Purple Line is designed to improve east-west transit and spur reinvestment in older inner suburbs. The line would connect Maryland’s two ends of Metrorail’s Red Line with the Green and Orange lines, as well as Amtrak and MARC stations.

Ben Ross, a longtime Purple Line activist, said a Purple Line might be lagging a bit behind a Red Line because state and federal officials foresee potential legal opposition from the Town of Chevy Chase and some supporters of a popular wooded bike and jogging trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

“Given the amount of money the opposition has,” Ross said, “they’ve got to take the time to make the paperwork bulletproof.”

Ajay Bhatt, president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said the state should stop spending tens of millions on Purple Line studies.

“If the state is already in the hole in its transportation fund, and the feds have fast-tracked a Red Line, how can the state even still talk about a Purple Line?” Bhatt said.

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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