Maryland could build the light-rail Purple Line in the Washington suburbs for about 10 percent less than previously estimated, state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said Wednesday.
The potential savings will be presented to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in the next week or so as he considers whether to proceed with the 16-mile transit project, which would run between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Hogan questioned the cost of the Purple Line as a gubernatorial candidate and continued to do so after taking office in January. He asked Rahn to find potential savings ahead of a decision, which is expected in mid-May.
In a phone interview, Rahn said changes in how to build and pay for the rail line could add up to a final construction cost estimate that is $200 million to $300 million less than the state’s previous projection of $2.45 billion.
He said his agency also has found ways to reduce the project’s long-term operating and maintenance costs, which were previously estimated at $55 million annually. But Rahn declined to quantify the savings and emphasized that the potentially lower costs don’t guarantee that the rail project will move ahead.
“The governor is very concerned about what commitments we’d make long term,” Rahn said. “The test of whether this is affordable is a decision only he can make. The question for the governor is where he wants to direct state money.”
Rahn spoke after meeting with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and other county officials about the project. County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said Rahn made clear in those discussions that Hogan is skeptical of studies that predict the Purple Line would create tens of thousands of jobs.
Leventhal, an ardent Purple Line supporter, came away pessimistic: “I think that the governor is very seriously considering pulling the plug.” He said Rahn depicted Hogan’s view of the project as “very tentative.”
Rahn said he and Hogan think that transportation projects can drive economic development. But, he said, they both take “with a grain of salt” analyses that try to quantify it. “I think everyone has been involved with projects with very rosy projections and the projections didn’t materialize.”
In addition to saying the Purple Line is too expensive, Hogan has said more state money should be spent on highway and bridge projects that he says were neglected under his predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D). Hogan also asked Rahn to analyze ways to cut costs on a $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line planned for Baltimore. The Red Line review is not as far along, Rahn said.
He said the Purple Line construction savings his agency has found would result from changes in the project’s “scope” and “commercial terms.” He declined to specify the scope changes but said the line is still being considered as light rail, along the same route, with 21 stations. Changes in commercial terms would focus on elements such as when the state would have to make certain payments to a private team chosen to build and operate the line, he said.
Rahn emphasized that the state wouldn’t know whether the estimated savings would translate into actual lower costs unless Hogan decides to continue the bid process for a 35-year public-private partnership. Four teams of private companies are bidding to build the line and help finance its construction in exchange for long-term contracts to operate and maintain it.
Leggett and County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) declined to speculate on the project’s future after the meeting with Rahn.
“My takeaway is the secretary is trying very hard to satisfy the governor’s desire to skinny up this project and is waiting to have a final, definitive meeting with the governor,” Berliner said.
Added Leggett, “I thought the meeting was a very strong meeting and that he was very straightforward.”
Leggett, Rahn and members of their staffs boarded a Ride On bus for a two-hour tour of the county that included clogged intersections in Bethesda, transit-oriented developments in the White Flint and Shady Grove areas, and the county’s preferred alignment for a rapid bus system in the Interstate 270 corridor.