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Purple Line will open in two phases, with first part in Prince George’s, state says

Crews work on a segment of the Purple Line in Lanham, Md., on Sept. 5. Maryland transit officials hope to open part of the line by late 2022. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Rather than open the full Purple Line a year late, Maryland transit officials said Thursday that they will open it in two phases, with the first segment carrying passengers in Prince George’s County in late 2022 and the rest opening the next year.

While the 16-mile light-rail line was scheduled to open in March 2022, officials said construction delays mean the full line couldn’t open until at least April 2023.

Project officials said they want passengers to ride at least part of the line by the end of 2022.

The length and exact location of the first segment hasn’t been determined, but it will include a two-mile test track being built along Veterans Parkway (Route 410) between New Carrollton and Riverdale Road, state transit officials said.

The initial segment must open in Prince George’s because the Purple Line’s rail yard and operations and maintenance facility are in Glenridge.

Charles Lattuca, head of project delivery for the Maryland Transit Administration, said project officials should have details about the first segment by the end of the year.

“Hopefully it will be a significant portion of the system,” Lattuca said after briefing the Montgomery County Council’s transportation and environment committee. He said the second segment should open “within months” of the first.

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“We don’t see the point of not letting people ride on it and delaying that [first segment] opening while the remainder of the system is completed,” Lattuca said.

The Purple Line will run between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s, with the highest ridership expected between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Peter van der Waart, chief executive for Purple Line Transit Partners, the team of private companies building the line and helping to finance its construction, said the first segment’s western terminus will depend on where trains can turn around.

Areas west of the test track include Riverdale Park, College Park and the University of Maryland’s flagship campus.

The line’s initial opening in Prince George’s would be a big payoff for a deal that former county executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) made with the Maryland Transit Administration in 2015. Baker agreed to commit an additional $20 million in county funds — for a total $120 million toward the Purple Line’s construction — in exchange for construction starting in Prince George’s and the command center being located there. Getting the command center and rail yard ensured that the first track would be laid nearby.

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The news that their residents would probably have to wait longer to ride the Purple Line didn’t sit well with some Montgomery council members, who noted that the county is contributing about $227 million toward the project.

Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) said after the meeting that he was frustrated to hear the line will open in segments.

“This project is over budget, and its timeline is delayed,” Glass said. Hearing that it will open in two phases “is disappointing, especially for a transit rider like me,” he said.

Others said they want the state to remain focused on getting the entire project done.

“Let’s keep the whole line on track,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “If they can make something happen earlier, great, but the real power comes when the whole line opens.”

Project officials said the Purple Line’s construction is 17 percent complete, and work is occurring along 12 of the 16 miles. Light-rail trains, which are being assembled in Upstate New York, are expected to arrive in Maryland for testing in late 2021.

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Lattuca said the state is still negotiating a “legal settlement” with Purple Line Transit Partners about how much each side will pay to make up for construction delays. The contractor says delays have added $300 million in costs, but state officials have said the contractor is responsible for some of the problems.

The ongoing dispute has drawn attention because the Purple Line’s $5.6 billion public-private partnership is one of the broadest of its kind for any U.S. transit project. The line’s construction comprises about $2 billion of the contract.

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