Unless the state increases revenue for transportation, “I think the project would need to be rethought,” said Tom Farasy, board chairman of the Purple Rail Alliance, a coalition of Prince George’s business leaders.
“We’re in the [federal funding] pipeline,” Farasy said. “At some point, the project has to show how it will get funded. If nothing happens this year, it’s a signal. It’s not a very good signal.”
To win federal money, the Maryland Transit Administration must prove that the state can pay its half of the 16-mile line’s construction costs, now estimated at $2.15 billion. Maryland transit officials have said the state can’t afford that without additional tax revenue to fund highway and transit construction.
Purple Line advocates say they have reason to be optimistic, even though Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was unsuccessful last year when he proposed raising transportation funds by applying the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline. The General Assembly hasn’t increased the state’s 23.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax — which is separate from the general sales tax — since 1992.
Most notably, support for a Purple Line has recently grown more vocal and organized, particularly among Prince George’s business leaders. The light-rail line would run between Bethesda and New Carrollton, with 21 stations in between.
It promises to be a tough fight. Of Maryland voters recently, 73 percent said they would oppose a 10-cent increase in the state’s gas tax, according to a poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. In a January 2012 Washington Post poll, 72 percent opposed a 10-cent increase, although opposition dropped to 50 percent for a 5-cent increase.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has introduced a bill that would add a 3 percent sales tax to gasoline and allow county officials to tack on as much as 5 cents a gallon more to fund road and transit projects. But Miller told reporters this week that “nothing is going to happen unless the governor leads on this issue.”
O’Malley hasn’t introduced a transportation tax proposal this year, and he has yet to appoint a permanent state transportation secretary to replace Beverley Swaim-Staley, who left the post last summer. The new secretary would be expected to lead the charge for an O’Malley transportation tax plan.
If no tax plan is approved this year, getting one passed in 2014, when Maryland lawmakers are up for reelection, is considered highly unlikely. That would push back the pursuit of federal funding for a Purple Line by at least two years. By then, however, the legislation that authorizes federal money for new transit construction will have expired, adding a new layer of uncertainty.