Dulles Rail Problems With FTA Worry Md.

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Maryland's transportation secretary says he is increasingly concerned about financing the Purple Line and other transit projects after Virginia's setback in trying to clinch crucial federal funding for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.

As soon as this summer, Maryland officials plan to begin seeking federal money for at least one of four transit proposals now being studied. Those include an east-west Purple Line through Montgomery and Prince George's counties; a north-south transit link along Interstate 270 between the Shady Grove Metro station and fast-growing parts of northern Montgomery; and two transit projects in Baltimore.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said recently that national competition has always been fierce for a relatively small pot of federal transit money. Still, Porcari said, "we're all concerned this Dulles decision is signaling that it's going to be even more difficult in the future."

Although Porcari said the Maryland Transit Administration has not decided which project to push first, a Purple Line is widely seen as having the greatest political momentum. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) proposed $100 million for Purple Line engineering and design in his fiscal 2009 budget.

Federal Transit Administration officials recently told Virginia leaders that the Dulles project was unlikely to receive $900 million in federal funds because of an "unprecedented" number of serious problems, including its high cost and precarious management plan. As part of an effort to save the Dulles rail extension, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has asked federal transit officials for advice on how to change the project to qualify for federal funding.

Maryland will face similar hurdles at the FTA. Like the Dulles proposal, Maryland transit projects have to compete for federal funding with projects from across the country, and they have to meet federal standards of cost-effectiveness. A transit line is supposed to generate enough riders and save them enough time to make a federal investment worthwhile.

Porcari said that the state's latest ridership estimates for a Purple Line -- as many as 47,000 boardings daily -- are "very strong" but that planners are still working to keep costs down. He said the state hopes the federal government will pay as much as half the cost of building a light rail or rapid bus line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Without federal help, the project is prohibitively expensive, he said.

In some ways, Porcari has an easier sell than Virginia officials do. The maximum estimated cost of a Purple Line is $1.8 billion, compared with the Dulles project's estimated cost of $5 billion. And a 16-mile Purple Line would link existing Metro lines and two MARC commuter rail stations; Northern Virginia's Silver Line would extend Metrorail by 23 miles from the East Falls Church Metro station without making other rail connections.

But a Purple Line faces some of the same challenges as the Dulles project.

Porcari said it hasn't been decided whether the state or Metro would operate a Purple Line. Either way, however, the line would link to the Metro system, which the FTA said is underfunded and in serious need of repair, casting doubt on Metro's ability to handle an extension to Dulles.

"Local dissension about the design of the project" is another of the Dulles rail project's "extraordinary large set of challenges," FTA chief James S. Simpson said. And like the Silver Line and most other major transportation projects, the Purple Line faces its share of vocal opposition.

For years, some Chevy Chase and Silver Spring residents have objected to the idea of Purple Line trains or buses running through their neighborhoods. Some users of the Capital Crescent Trail have launched another protest, saying a Purple Line along the popular walking and bike path would destroy a rare swath of urban tranquility between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Officials at the University of Maryland are fighting the state's plans to run the project down the College Park campus's main street. They say it would be too dangerous for pedestrians.

Maryland transit officials say they are working with community and university leaders to allay those concerns. They say they are designing a well-landscaped system similar to those that have operated safely in crowded downtowns and along bike trails elsewhere. Porcari also said the FTA hasn't given Washington area governments enough credit for their commitment to repair and rebuild Metro's infrastructure.

Porcari said he is most concerned that Northern Virginia officials reported feeling blindsided by the FTA. Virginia officials have contended that, until recently, they had been led to believe that the Dulles project met all federal requirements.

"We're concerned some of the ground rules changed in getting federal funding" for the Dulles project, Porcari said. "If that's true, then that's a real problem for Maryland. . . . We want to make sure we understand the ground rules and they don't change in the middle of the process."

FTA officials have said they warned Virginia leaders repeatedly about the Dulles project's soaring costs, its lengthening schedule and problematic management structure.

Maryland planners said they do not view the Dulles project as direct competition for federal money because the Silver and Purple lines would be built several years apart and would be seeking money at different times.

"If Dulles rail doesn't go forward and $900 million [in federal money] is freed up, there's no guarantee it would stay in the Washington region," said Henry Kay, Maryland's deputy administrator for transit planning and engineering. "It would probably be allocated for other projects in the nation."

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