Correction to This Article
An article in the Aug. 27 Metro section on Maryland's proposed Purple Line left unclear the role of the Federal Transit Administration. The agency does not mandate what a transit project will look like, but its vetting process and financial requirements can effectively shape a plan.

Rail Projects at the Mercy of U.S. Agency

By Katherine Shaver and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 27, 2007

The key decisions about Maryland's proposed Purple Line -- the route it takes, the type of rail cars it uses, the possibility of tunneling underground -- will be determined not by public opinion or political pressure.

Rather, a single agency that controls the limited federal money set aside for transit projects will shape the rail or bus line that could eventually link Bethesda and New Carrollton.

The Federal Transit Administration, which helped sink plans for a tunnel through Tysons Corner and is demanding further cost accounting for the proposed Metro line through Dulles International Airport, will likewise dictate what any new transit line through suburban Maryland would look like and when -- or whether -- there will be money to build it.

"It's the driving force behind the planning process," Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said of the competition for federal money. "You can have the best conceived transit project in the world, and it's not going forward if it doesn't qualify for federal funding."

Toward that end, Porcari delayed consideration of the Purple Line for another year after deciding that the rider estimates were too crude to impress the federal officials in charge of doling out critical funding. Analysts are now recalculating ridership predictions using more sophisticated forecasting models.

Concerns about federal guidelines also led local officials to quickly rule out heavy rail -- the type of trains used on Metro -- in favor of slower, but far cheaper, light-rail trains or express buses. State officials have also rejected calls to run the line under the popular Capital Crescent Trail, saying it would be too expensive without saving travel time -- another effort to satisfy federal criteria.

The concessions show just how focused planners are on pleasing officials at the federal agency. The Purple Line is estimated to cost as much as $1.6 billion, an amount state officials say they can't afford without federal help.

Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA. The agency doesn't have much to dole out. The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction, according to federal figures. More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.

In deciding which projects deserve funds, FTA officials consider primarily which would attract enough riders and save them enough time to be worth the investment. They also consider the state and local governments' ability to help pay for construction, maintenance and operating costs. Other considerations include impact on air quality, development around stations and the ability to move lower-income workers to jobs.

FTA evaluations can take years, because it rates a project -- and grants permission for it to move forward -- at several different points, controlling it from preliminary engineering through construction. The process has grown so complicated and time-consuming that, across the country, many local officials have begun to forgo federal money if they can secure enough local or private funds to build a project, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

"There's less money, there's tighter standards, and it's a long, long haul," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), one of the key leaders in securing federal money for the Dulles rail project.

Fearing they would jeopardize their $900 million in federal dollars, Virginia officials reluctantly dropped plans for a train tunnel beneath Tysons Corner this year. And although contractors expect to move dirt this fall on what would become Metro's 23-mile Silver Line, transportation planners are scrambling to trim $275 million out of the budget to satisfy federal funding standards.

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