As Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) prepares to take office, advocates and opponents of a light-rail Purple Line are beginning to lobby the incoming governor, hoping to persuade him to either begin construction next year or reconsider its $2.45-billion price tag with an eye toward canceling it.
Hogan’s unexpected victory last month has raised the stakes for the 16-mile project that has been studied for decades, recommended for $900 million in federal aid, and put out for bid. Both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have pegged much of their economic development plans to an east-west rail line between New Carrollton and Bethesda, while opponents say it would destroy a beloved wooded trail and cost the state heavily for years to come.
Both sides say Hogan’s business background — he owns an Anne Arundel County real estate firm — gives them the upper hand.
Purple Line advocates, who enjoyed the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for the past eight years, say they can convince Hogan that the project is not too expensive, as he said during the fall campaign. Their plan: show him that it would spur enough economic development and job growth to justify the cost.
David S. Iannucci, a senior economic adviser to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), said the Purple Line is critical to rejuvenate older, inner-ring suburbs such as Langley Park and Riverdale Park.
“A lot of data says that mass transit can be key to development and redevelopment opportunities,” Iannucci said.
Purple Line opponents, meanwhile, are seizing on Hogan’s apparent skepticism with calls for the state to reevaluate escalating costs and rosy ridership forecasts that enabled it to qualify for federal funding.
“People have said, ‘Oh, I thought this was a done deal,’ and it’s not a done deal,” said Pat Burda, vice mayor for the Town of Chevy Chase, which hired a law firm to fight the Purple Line.
Hogan has said he won’t announce any decisions about the Purple Line or other policy matters until after he takes office Jan. 21. But the clock is ticking.
State officials recently extended from January to mid-March the deadline for bids from companies seeking to build and operate the line in a 35-year public-private partnership, saying they wanted to give the new governor more time. If Hogan rejects all four proposals after they are submitted, the state could get stuck paying a total of $8 million in compensation promised to losing bidders.
Leading the pro-Purple Line charge are Montgomery and Prince George’s business leaders and developers. About two dozen met Tuesday at the offices of the Chevy Chase Land Company to draft a letter to Hogan. Much of the Chevy Chase Land Company’s plans to build taller buildings along Connecticut Avenue just south of the Capital Beltway in the Chevy Chase Lake area depend on a Purple Line station being built there.
“We want to appeal to the economic opportunities and jobs that are going to be created,” said attendee David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce. “We want to be at the table to convince him to keep the project going.”
Part of their message is that Montgomery and Prince George’s have rewritten their zoning codes to encourage higher-density, mixed-use development — offices and homes above street-level stores and restaurants — around future stations.
But the Montgomery and Prince George’s business communities face some disadvantages in their plan to win over Hogan. While Northern Virginia’s private sector took the lead in securing funding for the Metrorail Silver Line through Tysons Corner and on to Dulles International Airport, the Purple Line has been nudged along for two decades largely by a hearty band of grass-roots transit activists, who also campaigned for Hogan’s Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
Those activists say they’re calling on business leaders to step up.
“The communications to Mr. Hogan have to come from people who matter to the economic life of the Washington region,” said Ralph Bennett, president of the Purple Line Now advocacy group.
Opponents say Hogan’s election is a new chance to focus attention on the project’s $2.45-billion price tag, which is double initial projections made in 2001. They also want more scrutiny of the planned public-private partnership, in which private companies would help finance construction in exchange for long-term contracts to operate and maintain the line.
Many opponents say the state hasn’t seriously studied the potential for improving far cheaper east-west bus service. The chief purpose of building mass transit, they say, should be to reduce traffic by moving the most people at the lowest cost, not to boost economic growth.
Hogan “is obviously concerned about it costing too much, and the fact is we can’t afford it right now,” said Lewis Leibowitz, a lawyer and Chevy Chase resident opposed to the line.
About 30 residents from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area who oppose the Purple Line, including some who work as lawyers and lobbyists, met recently to discuss the best approach to Hogan and his transition team, Leibowitz said.
Meanwhile, the Town of Chevy Chase has spent $301,000 so far on legal fees and is continuing to lobby federal transit officials and those close to Hogan. Neighborhood groups along the alignment also are writing to the governor-elect.
Montgomery’s and Prince George’s elected officials, most of whom support a Purple Line, say they, too, are trying to get Hogan’s ear.
In Montgomery, a Purple Line must share attention with local leaders’ requests for state money to build dedicated bus lanes, known as the Corridor Cities Transitway plan, in the Interstate 270 biotechnology corridor. Some growth plans for northern Montgomery County also hinge on building more mass transit.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who met with Hogan on Thursday, said the Purple Line would be one of several topics of discussion.
“Obviously when we have a project of this magnitude,” Leggett said, “it will be a part of the discussion.”
Montgomery County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), one of the Purple Line’s most impassioned advocates, said he and Leggett “agreed that immediately after the election was too soon to start pestering the governor.”
But that period is over. Friday morning, the Committee for Montgomery will host Hogan at a breakfast for more than 800 county civic and government leaders. Leventhal said he knows where he will be seated —next to the incoming governor.