Purple Line advocates in Maryland worry about losing momentum


A cyclist passes beneath the trestle bridge that conveys the Capitol Crescent trail over Rock Creek as Montgomery county planners and DOT officials tour the actual sites of the proposed purple line transit system on Nov. 03, 2011 in Bethesda, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
February 9, 2013

Last week’s news that without additional tax revenue Maryland would halt design work on a light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties has renewed fears that the proposed Purple Line might never make it off the drawing board.

In the past decade, more than $100 million has been spent on planning the line, but if those efforts are put on hold because of a shortage of state money, Maryland’s bid for at least $1 billion in critical — and competitive — federal construction aid could be jeopardized.

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.

Miller’s proposal

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.

“If we don’t have the money, [federal money] will go to the next project in line,” said state Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

By 2015, Gaines said, state support for a Purple Line also could lose significant traction. That includes years of working to persuade colleagues from rural areas to support higher taxes, in part, to build multibillion-dollar transit systems that their constituents would rarely use. Rebuilding a case with new lawmakers would take time, she said.

“Their question will be, ‘If you needed the money two years ago, why didn’t you get the revenue then?’ ” Gaines said.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state, since 2002, has spent $105.8 million on preliminary engineering and environmental studies for a Purple Line. It has spent an additional $123.5 million on planning for a new 14-mile light-rail Red Line in Baltimore.

Deadline threat

Maryland’s recently released capital budget plan for transportation would cut off funding to both projects after June 30 if no tax increase was approved by then. That would leave both projects on hold before reaching final design.

Work to begin preliminary engineering on a 15-mile dedicated busway in the heavily congested Interstate 270 corridor — a project known as the Corridor Cities Transitway — also would be put on hold if a tax proposal failed, according to the capital budget plan.

Work done on the projects so far could be resuscitated once state money is available, planners said, though some studies would need to be updated after three years. Even so, state officials say, they’re concerned that the Federal Transit Administration will have turned its attention to dozens of other projects nationwide competing for relatively scarce financial aid.

“Momentum is vitally important,” said Leif Dormsjo, Maryland’s acting deputy transportation secretary. “The costs associated with these projects, the political support, the complexity of bringing people together — it all requires steady and concentrated effort.”

Federal officials would not comment specifically on Maryland’s transit projects. But one FTA official said any “lack of progress” in obtaining “firm funding commitments” from state or local governments “could be one factor that contributes to a project falling behind others.” The official said FTA policy prohibited his being quoted by name.

When — or if — a Purple Line is built will help shape the Maryland suburbs, as Montgomery and Prince George’s planners have begun to factor it into long-term plans.

Montgomery officials are trying to accommodate population growth without increasing traffic congestion by allowing taller buildings to be built near light-rail stations. Prince George’s officials have said they are hopeful that Purple Line stations would encourage economic development and help rejuvenate older inside-the-Beltway communities, such as Riverdale Park and College Park.

But business leaders say developers won’t risk that kind of investment until funding is certain.

“I’m not saying the money would have to start flowing next Monday,” said Farasy, the Prince George’s Purple Line advocate, who develops apartment buildings. “But people need to know it’s coming so they can plan on it.”

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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