The opening of Maryland’s Purple Line is at least a year behind schedule, and delays have added at least $215 million to the light-rail line’s cost, according to project documents.
Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), a team of companies building the 16-mile line and helping to finance its construction, has told the state the line won’t begin carrying passengers until February 2023. That’s almost a year behind the March 2022 opening date in the project’s contract and four months behind the October 2022 date that Maryland transit officials insist is still possible, according to reports obtained by The Washington Post through public record requests.
A February 2023 opening date is possible only if work is accelerated, PLTP has told the state, according to the reports. Otherwise, the contractor said, it could open as late as June 2024.
Despite repeated assurances by Maryland officials that the project remains on schedule, the reports show the delays — and the potential for hundreds of millions in cost overruns — have been the subject of intense discussions between the state and PLTP for nearly two years, before construction even started. A state transportation spokesman said as recently as December that the opening date remains unchanged.
Officials with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) declined to answer questions about the delays and costs, but released a statement Wednesday.
“The Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Transit Administration and the Purple Line Transit Partners are still working on developing a recovery schedule to open the Purple Line for revenue service by the end of 2022,” state transportation spokesman Gary Witherspoon said. “We are currently negotiating the terms of how to accomplish a 2022 recovery schedule.”
Maryland transportation officials said in reports that they rejected a February 2023 opening date because they believe the contractor can do more to accelerate construction. The state also rejected the proposed June 2024 opening as “an attempt by PLTP to position themselves to claim acceleration costs,” MTA officials wrote in July.
Purple Line Transit Partners referred all questions to MTA.
Delays and cost overruns, as well as disputes over who will pay for them, aren’t unusual in construction projects. However, the Purple Line’s delays are sure to attract scrutiny because the project has garnered national attention as one of the broadest public-private partnerships of its kind in the country. Maryland officials have touted the arrangement as a way to incentivize the contractor to complete it on time.
Many states, faced with tight budgets and debt limits, are looking to partner with the private sector to build complex, expensive infrastructure projects.
PLTP and the state signed a $5.6 billion contract — one of the largest ever in Maryland — for the private consortium to design and build the line and then operate and maintain it for 30 years. PLTP also is helping to finance the line’s $2.4 billion construction.
Since the consortium will operate and maintain the Purple Line for 30 years, the two sides must reach an agreement and continue to work together for decades.
The Purple Line will run east-west inside the Capital Beltway, with 21 stations between New Carrollton in Prince George’s County and Bethesda in Montgomery County.
The private consortium’s reports don’t say how much it would cost in additional labor, equipment and other expenses to open the line in February 2023. The negotiations have focused on who — the state or team of companies — is to blame for which delays and who should pay to offset them.
Local elected officials who represent the densely populated Washington suburbs where Purple Line construction has created noise and traffic congestion questioned why the public had not been told of potential delays or additional costs.
“I’m pretty astounded that we’re looking at delays in construction,” said Prince George’s County Council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D), whose district encompasses much of the rail alignment. “The question is: How much are we slipping and why?”
Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D), whose Silver Spring district also has much of the alignment, said he would be “very disappointed” if the line’s opening is pushed beyond fall 2022, as the MTA has promised.
“I’d expect [state officials] would notify us if there are going to be delays,” Hucker said, “rather than just put it in a report.”
The Purple Line’s construction started a year behind schedule, in August 2017, after the state won a federal lawsuit aimed at halting the project. Since then, PLTP said in monthly progress reports, it has taken longer than expected to complete the line’s design and coordinate work with CSX railroad and local utilities.
The state, the contractor wrote, has added to the delays by taking too long to review plans for environmental protection measures, such as for erosion control, and blowing a late 2017 deadline for buying rights of way.
Acquiring property late leads to delays in engineering, soil borings and other pre-construction work, the consortium wrote.
“Not only is the delay of [rights of way] availability a concern, but the lack of any forecasted dates for when the properties will be fully available makes it very difficult for [the contractor] to plan and schedule future work,” PLTP wrote in its November report, the most recent one publicly available.
The delay in environmental reviews, the contractor wrote, “directly impacts permitting and the start of major construction” in different areas.
Design work still underway and more than a year behind schedule has been complicated, the contractor said, by the fact that MTA’s design specifications don’t jibe with requirements imposed by CSX, the holding company whose property the Purple Line affects.
In September, MTA told federal officials it expects it will grant PLTP a “time extension” beyond the contract’s opening date of March 2022 to reflect delays caused by the lawsuit. However, it has not granted extra time for other work behind the state’s projected opening date of October 2022, MTA said.
The MTA blames the delays on PLTP, known as the concessionaire, for taking more time to finish the design and other work it says was not affected by the lawsuit.
“There have been discussions with the concessionaire about adjusting the [opening date] due to the impacts attributable to” the legal delays, the MTA wrote in August. “However, entitlement for excusable delays has not been demonstrated satisfactorily by [the] concessionaire. Until the concessionaire demonstrates such entitlement, a formal time extension shall not be granted.”
MTA officials have told the Federal Transit Administration they are working closely with the contractor to coordinate with local utilities and CSX, speed up state environmental reviews and agree on a new schedule.
“The entire project team is working diligently to correct this situation,” they wrote in September.
The contract includes deductions for late work and incentives for the contractor to deliver ahead of schedule. However, whether those penalties or incentives are paid depends on establishing responsibility.
According to state and federal reports, the state and the consortium have not had an agreed-upon master schedule, which is supposed to be updated monthly, since March 2017 — five months before construction started.
An oversight contractor for the Federal Transit Administration, which has allotted $900 million in highly competitive construction grants to the Purple Line, writes about the fight over the project’s schedule under “major problems and/or issues.”
Two of the biggest delays — from the lawsuit and in acquiring property — have so far added at least $215 million, or almost 10 percent, to the project’s construction budget, according to a PLTP report filed in November related to its federal loan. That does not appear to reflect costs required to accelerate construction.
The design problems and delays in acquiring property have also caught the attention of Wall Street. Standard & Poor’s, which rates the bonds used to finance construction, noted in a June report that the right of way delays make the state’s goal of opening the line in October 2022 “challenging.”
A bridge rebuilt over future Purple Line tracks in the Lyttonsville area of Silver Spring opened Wednesday — three weeks behind schedule.