The General Assembly’s recent rejection of the governor’s proposed gas tax hike makes it increasingly likely that the state will have to choose to build one of the lines before the other, state and local transportation officials say. With no new tax revenue dedicated to transportation, finding the money for even one of the light-rail lines will be difficult, the officials say.
The state hoped to begin construction on both lines in 2015, with the 16-mile Purple Line opening between Bethesda and New Carrollton by late 2020 and the 14-mile Baltimore Red Line opening in early 2021. But construction of the runner-up project probably would be delayed at least five years, until after the chosen line is built.
When asked whether the state could afford to build both at once without a gas tax increase, state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said, “The short answer is probably no. . . . Obviously, it would have a significant impact on our ability to build anything else.”
Time to find additional money is short. State and local officials say they have 12 to 18 months to prove to the Federal Transit Administration that Maryland can pay half the cost of constructing one or both lines. Otherwise, the state could fall behind in the rigorous competition for federal transit money.
“Obviously, we see it as a setback,” said Ralph Bennett, president of the advocacy group Purple Line Now, referring to the gas tax proposal’s demise. “The federal government will look to us and say, ‘How’s your funding coming?’ Now we have to tell them we’re working hard in Maryland to get reliable transportation funding, but we only got as far as we got.”
Swaim-Staley said building both projects at once is still “technically affordable,” even without a gas tax increase. But based on projected revenue, doing so would consume 46 percent of the state’s transportation construction funds and 11 percent of its entire transportation trust fund through fiscal 2020, according to the state reports.
The state relies on the transportation trust fund to maintain much of its infrastructure, including highways, bridges, airports and the busy port of Baltimore. The fund also pays for Maryland’s contribution to the Metrorail system, which opened in 1976 and is struggling to maintain its infrastructure. A state commission recently reported that without new revenue, Maryland’s transportation system is “on the verge of financial collapse.”
Officials estimate that it will cost $1.93 billion to build the Purple Line and $2.2 billion to build Baltimore’s Red Line, an east-west addition to the city’s light-rail system.