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Maryland will need up to six months to decide how to finish Purple Line if builders quit, state officials say

Purple Line workers build a rail bridge in Riverdale Park, Md., near the intersection of Kenilworth Avenue and Route 410 in June. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Maryland transit officials will decide in the next 30 days which Purple Line work can continue and what must be delayed if the companies building it quit, state officials told the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday.

However, it will take four to six months for the state to decide how it will complete the 16-mile light-rail line through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said Kevin Quinn, head of the Maryland Transit Administration. The state is exploring managing some work in the short term and then seeking a construction contractor or another long-term public-
private partnership, Quinn said.

“I’m not going to sit here and say there won’t be stumbling blocks along the way or make commitments that the state is going to be able to maintain the same level of activity” as the current contractor, Quinn said. “But I can tell you in the long term, we are going to deliver this project to the state of Maryland, and we’re going to deliver it efficiently.”

He added, “There are a number of good contractors in this market that want to take on this work.”

Quinn’s public comments were the first since Thursday, when a Baltimore judge dealt the state a blow by ruling that the private concessionaire, Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), may quit if it chooses to do so in a dispute over $800 million in unpaid cost overruns. PLTP has said the additional expenses  stem   from   more   than 2½ years of construction delays.

Judge: Purple Line companies may quit over extended delays

The contractor has said construction sites could be packed up and safely secured in two to four weeks. Work has continued since the judge’s ruling.

Quinn didn’t say how much the different options are expected to cost or how the state would pay for them, since the remaining $1 billion of construction was going to be financed by PLTP. Without a private partner, Quinn previously said, funding would have to be diverted from other transit, such as MARC commuter rail and Baltimore-area systems, to keep construction moving until the state could line up longer-term public financing.

Under the current 36-year partnership, valued at $5.6 billion, PLTP is to build the line over six years and help finance its construction before operating it for 30 years. The state planned to pay off the private debt, cover the operating costs and pay PLTP a profit via annual payments.

The deal is one of the first public-private partnerships for a U.S. transit project to rely on private financing.

Quinn said the state remains “open to a fair and reasonable settlement” and is continuing negotiations with PLTP over the cost overruns. However, he said the state also is working to take over more than 100 subcontracts in the event PLTP quits.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state also is willing to go to mediation. She declined to elaborate.

John Undeland, a spokesman for Purple Line Transit Partners, said it also is open to mediation even as it works on a possible transition plan.

“Leaving the project is the last thing we want to do,” Undeland said. However, he said, the concessionaire had “no choice but to pursue termination” after the state refused to provide “meaningful relief” for delays beyond its control.

Several council members called on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to voice his commitment to completing the line’s construction rather than deferring to his transportation agency.

“The governor also needs to put forth some clear statements about how he’s going to own this major issue and how we’re going to come out the other side,” council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) said.

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said he’s concerned about the project being in “limbo” for six months.

“We need the governor to step up and really assert strong leadership here,” Riemer said.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said “there’s no question” the Purple Line will create jobs, connect communities and improve the state’s infrastructure.

“The governor fully supports Secretary Slater’s efforts to get the project done and protect taxpayers while ensuring we have a partner that also has the best interests of Marylanders in mind,” Ricci said in a statement, referring to Transportation Secretary Gregory I. Slater.

Purple Line project delays, cost overruns reveal long-brewing problems

Matthew Pollack, the state’s Purple Line project director, said Maryland officials are meeting with PLTP’s construction contractor daily on a transition plan. Even if PLTP and its construction contractor quit, he said, subcontractors should be able to complete the design and continue relocating underground utilities, building walls and manufacturing the light-rail vehicles.

The Purple Line was scheduled to begin carrying passengers in March 2022, but PLTP has said it won’t open until at least November 2024. PLTP says the delays stem from a lawsuit that stalled the    start    of      construction     by 11 months, the state being slow to provide right of way, and recent changes in design requirements for a crash wall and culverts.

Quinn told the council that he couldn’t comment on the project’s legal case. However, a spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general’s office said after the briefing that it will continue. The state has sued PLTP for breach of contract for trying to terminate the deal.

Whether PLTP properly terminates the contract for extended delays will determine how much the state would have to pay PLTP to cover its demobilization costs and outstanding debt. A state Department of Transportation official testified that those costs could exceed $367 million.

Maryland will manage Purple Line construction if partnership falls through, state says

Council members said businesses and residents are angry about the possibility of more delays after living with ripped-up roads and sidewalks, as well the closure of part of the popular Capital Crescent Trail for three years. Some also expressed concerns about construction workers losing jobs during the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

“All of us today are very frustrated by the court action and the place the state finds itself in after so much energy and effort has gone into this project,” said council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5), chair of the panel’s transportation committee. “It feels like a real blow to be where we are.”

Council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) said his constituents just want the line completed.

“I have yet to meet a resident who feels very strongly about who builds this,” Friedson told state officials. “The Purple Line needs to be built. . . . The current situation is unacceptable.”