Md. Road Projects Lose Out to Purple Line as Costs Rise

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Maryland transportation officials plan to build a Purple Line using money now envisioned for two major road projects in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and the proposed rail line's estimated construction costs have climbed to $1.68 billion -- a $330 million increase from the most recently publicized projections.

One of the road projects would have widened 10 miles of Routes 28 and 198 between Georgia Avenue and Interstate 95 through northern Silver Spring and Burtonsville. The other would have widened about three miles of Robert Crain Highway (Route 3) between U.S. 50 and the Anne Arundel County line, according to state documents submitted to the region's Transportation Planning Board. Both projects were years away from construction.

Maryland officials laid out their Purple Line plans -- particularly how they intend to pay for the line -- as part of the pitch they will make before the regional planning board today requesting that the project be included in its 20-year funding plan. Such a step is required for any project that relies on federal money. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to begin seeking federal construction money for a Purple Line this summer or fall.

State documents submitted to the Transportation Planning Board, which is an arm of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, refer to a Purple Line solely as a light-rail line, signaling that the state is no longer considering a bus rapid-transit option. A 16-mile light-rail line, which is akin to a trolley line, would run mostly aboveground inside the Capital Beltway, between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It would have 21 stations and handle an estimated 62,600 trips daily by 2030, state officials have said.

Cutting these two road projects from the region's transportation plan would free up $536 million for a Purple Line, state officials said. Although the state has money to continue planning, the road projects could not be built unless they were reinserted into the regional plan. Both were scheduled to be built by 2020 but probably would have been pushed back because they were low on their counties' priority lists, officials said.

"It shows the higher priority of the Purple Line, but these projects were not likely to be built for a number of years anyway," said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

The higher price tag resulted from federal rules that require cost estimates in regional plans to account for inflation by reflecting the years in which the money would be spent, state officials said. The previously publicized cost estimate of $1.35 billion was in 2007 dollars. The $1.68 billion estimate is based on construction starting in 2014 and the line opening in 2017.

Dollar figures included in the Washington region's 20-year transportation plan, which is known as the Constrained Long Range Plan, are based on what states "reasonably expect to have available" for certain projects over the next two decades, said Donald A. Halligan, director of planning and capital programming for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

In addition to the $536 million freed up from the two road projects, $500 million for the Purple Line would come from the state's transportation trust fund, Halligan said. The regional plan already includes another $480 million in state and federal money for a transit link between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which has been incorporated into the Purple Line.

Montgomery officials said the need to widen Routes 28 and 198 became less critical after the state began building the six-lane Intercounty Connector, which will carry east-west traffic in the same area.

"The bottom line is this is all an extremely academic process because there's no money for anything," said Montgomery council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council's transportation committee.

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