Montgomery and Prince George’s leaders made a final push Thursday to persuade Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to build the Purple Line, stressing the economic benefits that light rail could bring to the region.
The closed-door meeting of the governor, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) came as Hogan considers whether to scrap state plans for a 16-mile rail line between the two counties or build a less expensive version. Hogan has said the construction costs would have to be “dramatically lower” than the current estimate of $2.45 billion.
Hogan said Thursday that he will announce a decision on the Purple Line after he returns from a trade mission to Asia on June 6, according to Baker and Leggett.
They said Hogan did not say what, if any, dollar figure he has in mind for an acceptable price or whether he even believes the idea of connecting the two suburbs with an east-west rail line is worth pursuing. Leggett said they told Hogan about 31 development projects — townhouses, apartment buildings, office space and retail centers — that could be jeopardized if the rail line between Bethesda and New Carollton is not built. The governor made no commitments, Leggett said.
“He listened,” Leggett said in an interview after the 30-minute meeting in the governor’s office in Annapolis. “He thought we made a lot of headway in making those points.”
Hogan did not emerge from the meeting with the executives. About 30 minutes after the discussions ended, he walked quickly toward a statehouse exit. When asked by a reporter how the meeting went, Hogan continued walking and said, “Great.”
The two executives said they did not discuss changing the existing cost-sharing plan for the project’s construction. The cost-sharing arrangement includes pledges from Montgomery and Prince George’s of $110 million each. However, Leggett said for the first time Thursday that Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn indirectly broached the possibility of asking the counties to contribute more money when he toured Montgomery with county officials May 6.
“He indicated we may have to talk about it,” Leggett said.
The Montgomery executive said he is unwilling to contribute more. In addition to the $110 million in construction funding, Montgomery also has budgeted $100 million to rebuild the Georgetown Branch trail alongside Purple Line tracks between Bethesda and Silver Spring, and $57 million for a new southern entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, where the street-level Purple Line would connect to the underground Red Line Metro station via elevators. (The Purple Line would not be part of Metro.)
“We gave at the office,” Leggett said. “My position is that Montgomery has [agreed to pay] a great deal.”
Baker took a similar stance.
“We’ve come up with a number that we’re willing to contribute to the Purple Line, and we think that’s the appropriate amount,” Baker said. “This meeting with the governor wasn’t about the amount that the jurisdictions are contributing. We gave him our perspective on why we think the Purple Line should go forward, why it makes good economic sense for the state.”
The state Transportation Department has been analyzing the project since February, focusing on ways to cut costs. Rahn, the transportation secretary, recently said the agency believes it has found $200 million to $300 million in potential savings.
Observers say the state might save money by scaling back “extras” in the project’s design, running trains less often, finding greater efficiencies in the construction process or asking the two counties to kick in more money. Rahn has said the state also could save money by adjusting the timing of payments to a private concessionaire that would design, build, operate and maintain the line in addition to helping to finance construction. Bids on a 35-year public-private partnership are required by mid-August.
Rahn also has said the project is still being considered along its original 16-mile alignment, with 21 stations and light-rail trains running mostly along local streets.
Montgomery and Prince George’s officials and business leaders say the rail line is necessary to focus growth, attract jobs and spark economic development in aging suburbs. Supporters say it also would provide an important east-west link in the suburban rail system by connecting neighborhoods to Maryland’s spokes of the Metro system, MARC commuter rail and Amtrak. The line also would connect to the University of Maryland’s College Park campus and job centers such as downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda.
Opponents say the project would be too expensive and would not attract the more than 44,000 daily trips that the state predicts. Critics also say the state’s forecasts of how many jobs the project would generate are overly optimistic and that building the line would cause too much environmental damage.
Bill Turque and Arelis Hernández contributed to this report.