Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has recommended to Gov. Larry Hogan that he approve building the Purple Line after making changes to reduce its cost to the state, but it’s not clear whether Hogan will agree, two officials familiar with the discussions said Wednesday.
Rahn urged his boss to go ahead with the light-rail project in the Washington suburbs providing that the price tag is trimmed by about $300 million from the estimated $2.45 billion cost and that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties pay a bigger share, one of the officials said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because while they have been briefed on Rahn’s action, they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Rahn made the recommendation late last month before leaving with the governor on a trade trip to Asia. It came as a relief to Purple Line supporters, who are making a final push to persuade Hogan to back the project on grounds that the economic benefits justify the cost.
But Hogan (R) has been consistently skeptical about whether the Purple Line would yield as many jobs and as much new business as backers predict.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said he could not confirm that Rahn had urged the governor to back a less-costly version of the project, rather than postpone it or kill it outright.
“As far as I know, no final recommendations have been made to the governor,” Mayer said. He declined to say whether Rahn had delivered a preliminary judgment.
Hogan is “reviewing the options, the pros and cons, and will make the decision sometime this month,” Mayer said.
Rahn’s spokeswoman said the secretary would have no comment.
Rahn’s support was viewed as significant partly because Hogan made a show of assigning him the task of vetting the project’s pluses and minuses.
The secretary’s endorsement also was important because some Democrats raised concerns at the time of his appointment that his record suggested he favored investing in highways and bridges over transit.
“My concern was that he would be focused only on roads,” Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a Purple Line supporter, said Wednesday when asked about Rahn’s reported position.
“The secretary has shown that he is open” to other ideas, he said.
Montgomery County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) praised Rahn for being receptive to arguments in favor of the Purple Line. But Leventhal also got in a public disagreement with the secretary over whether Rahn had said in early May that he planned to endorse the project.
According to Leventhal, Rahn said at a meeting that he intended to recommend to Hogan that he build the Purple Line, albeit at a reduced cost. But Rahn’s spokeswoman, Erin Henson, said the secretary “never discussed any recommendation with George Leventhal.”
Asked about Henson’s comment, Leventhal said: “I really like the secretary, and I hope I haven’t said anything that gets him in trouble. He was abundantly clear that he supports the project, he wants to build the project, and he was getting ready to make his recommendation.”
Montgomery council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who also was at the meeting, said Rahn made no promises but indicated that he would make such a recommendation to Hogan.
“It has been our expectation that Rahn would put before the governor an option that would have a lower price tag and more contribution from our county,” Berliner said. “We left the meeting with the feeling that he would present that kind of option. We have our fingers crossed that the governor would find that satisfactory.”
If Hogan proceeds as Rahn suggested, he might cut costs by building fewer than the 21 stations planned for the 16-mile light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, or by running trains less frequently. Supporters say that the first change would reduce the impact on economic development and that the second would hurt ridership.
Both Baker and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) have said their counties could not afford to contribute more than the $120 million each they’ve pledged to build the Purple Line.
But pro-transit activists and supporters in the business community said Montgomery and Prince George’s would come under a lot of pressure to ante up more money if that were the only barrier to the project moving forward.