The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland to get $900-million federal full funding agreement for Purple Line

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had “very productive” conversations with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to secure funding for the Purple Line. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland’s Purple Line will receive a $900 million federal full funding agreement from the Trump administration, officials said Monday, a critical step forward for the oft-delayed project.

The breakthrough came after “very productive, high-level conversations” on Friday and Monday between Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said.

A Department of Transportation spokesman confirmed the deal, and said it is expected to be signed next week.

Construction of the 16-mile light-rail line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will begin within weeks after the deal is formalized.

The announcement put to rest worries in Maryland that the Purple Line might fall victim to desires in the Trump administration and the Republican Party to trim federal transit spending.

The deal drew praise from Maryland Democrats, some of whom applauded Hogan for ultimately backing the Purple Line despite having criticized it as too costly during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

The White House budget released in the spring proposed eliminating new federal grants for transit construction, and the GOP party platform urged phasing out all federal transit spending.

Trump advisers call for privatizing some public assets to build new infrastructure

The Purple Line was spared partly because the project was so far advanced. In addition, the Trump administration is eager to promote it as a model for financing and operating major infrastructure projects by using public-private partnerships, in which governments team up with for-profit companies.

Maryland board approves $5.6 billion Purple Line contract

Maryland awarded the concession for designing, constructing, operating and maintaining the Purple Line to a consortium of private companies, called Purple Line Transit Partners.

In his talks with Chao, Hogan emphasized the virtues of using such partnerships as “a big thing,” Mayer said. That approach evidently paid off.

“The Maryland Purple Line project is an excellent example of leveraging a transit project through a public-private partnership,” a Department of Transportation spokesman said. “Going forward, it demonstrates the effectiveness of P3s, and we hope it will expand to other infrastructure projects across the country.”

From the archives: Purple Line Public-private transit partnership would be one of the broadest in U.S.

Hogan also told Chao that the project was important for Maryland and the region, partly because it would help bring new riders to the Metro system. Although the Purple Line will not be part of Metro, it will link four Metro lines — two “spokes” of the Red Line, plus the Green and Orange lines.

Hogan also “reiterated” to Chao that Maryland “had already put a ton of money into it, and we’re committed to it,” Mayer said.

The deal also appeared to show that the Trump administration will not withhold funds for the project to punish Hogan for declining to support Trump in the election and for criticizing him on occasion since then. On Thursday, for example, Hogan said Trump did “a really bad job” in responding to the deadly violence in Charlottesville.

Mayer declined to comment on what the agreement might signal about the administration’s view of Hogan.

The funding agreement will free up $325 million in federal funds that have already been appropriated for the Purple Line, and clear the path for a total federal investment of $900 million over the life of the agreement. Without the federal investment, the state could not possibly afford the more than $2 billion needed for construction.

Maryland officials were several days away from clinching a federal funding agreement in 2016, under the Obama administration. However, a court ruling in a federal lawsuit opposing the light-rail line made it ineligible for the federal money.

A recent appellate court decision in the lawsuit made the project once again eligible for federal grants, but a commitment was still required from the Trump administration.

“The Maryland Purple Line project has met all the statutory and readiness requirements, and the [Federal Transit Administration] does intend to sign the $900 million federal full funding grant agreement,” the DOT spokesman said.

The lawsuit has not been settled, but construction can now go forward while the case works it way through the courts. Purple Line opponents allege that the state must delay the project until it recalculates its ridership projections to reflect Metro’s declining ridership.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin, both Democrats from Maryland, praised the Trump administration for its decision to fully fund the light-rail line, calling the Purple Line a “critical transportation project.”

“We are pleased that this project is now moving forward and appreciate Department of Transportation Secretary Chao’s efforts to secure the funding,” they said in a statement.

The line’s eventual construction, they said, would bring significant quality-of-life benefits for state residents.

The senators assigned credit for the deal not just to Hogan and Chao, but also to other Maryland officials, almost all of whom are Democrats.

“From day one,” they said, Maryland’s congressional delegation and local and state officials have “been fighting to bring the Purple Line to Maryland, because we know it will strengthen our economy, help combat congestion and air pollution, and improve the lives of families in our state.”

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) was enthusiastic about Monday’s news. “After years of unnecessary delays, this is welcome news for a project that will create greater access to public transportation, relieve congestion and stimulate job growth and investment,” Scott Peterson, Baker’s spokesman, said.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) was elated. “I’ve never felt this good” about the project’s prospects, Berliner said. “This is the high-water mark.”

Berliner applauded the Hogan administration for its continued support of the Purple Line and the Trump administration for honoring the federal commitment.

"Governor Hogan has stood by this project when it wasn't clear that this was necessarily a high priority for him," Berliner said. "I believe the Trump administration has honored its commitment. I think we're in a strange world where we have to be grateful for people doing their job."

Berliner said with the funding agreement, the state could soon turn its focus toward building the rail line.

“Now we can start diggin’ dirt,” he said.

This story has been updated.