Montgomery officials seek transportation funding ideas from Northern Virginia

Montgomery County Council members, looking for ways to pay for a light-rail Purple Line and a countywide network of bus lanes, sought ideas Thursday from Northern Virginia, where new lanes just opened on the Capital Beltway and where the Silver Line Metrorail extension is almost half-finished.

During a briefing by Northern Virginia transportation officials, County Council members’ questions boiled down to one: If local and state governments across the country are hurting for money, how did Virginia afford to build a $2 billion Beltway expansion and a $5.6 billion subway line?

(Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST) - A view of the Silver Line of the DC Metro system as it passes through Virginia’s Tysons Corner near Route 123 in September 2012. Officials from Montgomery County, Md. are seeking advice from their counterparts in Virginia on how to afford similar rail expansion projects.

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“Why aren’t we able to come up with these financing packages?” council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) asked the panel.

After hearing how Dulles Toll Road revenue is financing a significant chunk of the Silver Line construction, Leventhal said perhaps building tolled lanes on Interstate 270 or Montgomery’s portion of the Beltway could produce revenue to help pay for a Purple Line and other transit.

“That may be something we want to be looking at and thinking about,” Leventhal said.

Montgomery officials are looking for ways to help pay for three major projects: A $2 billion light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, a $540 million Corridor Cities Transitway to connect fast-growing upper Montgomery with the Shady Grove Metrorail station, and a network of bus lanes to link commuting corridors.

The state is seeking federal aid to build the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway, both of which would presumably get some state money. However, state officials have said they cannot afford to build major projects without a new source of transportation revenue.

An attempt by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to apply the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline failed last year, encountering strong anti-tax sentiment, and state political watchers say any similar attempt this year would be a tough sell. Meanwhile, the demand for federal funds for transit construction far exceeds the supply, leaving federal help uncertain. Maryland transit officials have said the Purple Line would need about $1 billion in federal money to cover half the project’s costs.

Deborah Lipman, an official with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told the council that the county will need a “broad-based partnership.” She said the Silver Line’s construction required financial commitments from the federal government, the state and commercial property owners along the route willing to pay higher taxes. Revenue from the Dulles Toll Road also contributed 54 percent of the overall costs.

“If the property owners and businesses see [the transportation project] as [spurring] economic development and you have the business community behind it, that makes a huge difference,” Lipman said.

The panel also cited other funding options, including low-interest federal loans and public-private partnerships in which companies finance most of the construction costs in exchange for profiting from the projects’ operations, such as through toll revenue. That is how the new high-occupancy toll lanes on the western side of the Beltway were built.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, said that since 2000, voters across the country have approved about 70 percent of ballot measures proposing tax increases to fund transit construction. “People want options beyond the car,” Guzzetti said after the briefing.

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said he is concerned that Montgomery’s lack of new transportation infrastructure will encourage companies to locate in Northern Virginia as Silver Line stations open through Tysons Corner later this year.

“I think the county needs to break ground on some project in the near term to demonstrate that we’re competitive in this region,” Riemer said after the briefing.

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the transportation committee, said: “You see what’s happening in Denver and other communities, and you say to yourself, Why not us? All you have to do is look across the river, and you see things happening.”

 
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