The Trump administration is continuing to consider Maryland’s Purple Line for federal construction aid even as the project remains stalled in a court battle, according to a budget document released Wednesday.
Supporters of the 16-mile light-rail project had worried that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) might scrap $900 million in grants requested for the line because the Trump administration had said it would fund only projects with “existing” full-funding grant agreements.
The Purple Line was five days away from securing such an agreement under the Obama administration in August, when a ruling in a federal lawsuit opposing the project made it ineligible for federal money. Being included among the FTA’s latest funding recommendations signals that an agreement would be signed if the state wins the lawsuit.
The Purple Line proposal suffered a major legal setback Monday, when a federal judge ordered that Maryland update the project’s ridership projections, potentially adding months to a seven-month construction delay.
Despite the ongoing legal fight, the Purple Line was one of two projects without a funding agreement that the FTA included in recommendations for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. It’s listed under “other projects that may become ready for funding.” The Purple Line’s funding agreement, the FTA report said, “remains under review due to pending litigation.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) fought for the FTA to retain the Purple Line for consideration after President Trump’s “skinny budget,” released in March, said only transit projects with funding agreements would be recommended for grants.
Asked whether he’d received any assurances that the FTA would sign a Purple Line funding agreement when, or if, the lawsuit is resolved, Van Hollen said, “We believe they’ll sign the [full funding grant agreement].”
Added Van Hollen: “The good news is the Purple Line is recommended in this budget and specifically cited. The big issue is the lawsuit and resolving that as quickly as possible in a positive way.”
In a statement, Cardin said he, too, was pleased that the White House had agreed to “maintain the Purple Line funding eligibility while the legal challenges are resolved.” He said he planned to reach out to the FTA “for details on what steps they plan to take to keep this project moving forward.”
An FTA spokeswoman declined to comment on the project’s funding chances beyond what was in the report.
The FTA’s request for $1.23 billion in construction grants would cover 12 transit projects that already have funding agreements, including six transit lines in California and rail work in Denver, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Fort Worth, Tex.
But transit advocates said they were disappointed that the FTA is proposing to leave many other projects to rely solely on state and local money. The Trump administration has said new transit lines should be paid for by the communities that will benefit from them. About 50 projects in two dozen states are at risk of losing federal support, according to federal documents.
Projects recommended by the Obama administration but cut from the latest FTA funding list included a streetcar line in Orange County, Calif., and extensions of light-rail lines in Minneapolis and Seattle.
The FTA recommendations also would cut all federal aid for “small starts” projects estimated to cost less than $300 million to build. Those include streetcar systems planned for Sacramento; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Tempe, Ariz., as well as rapid-bus lines for Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo.
Andrew Brady, of the American Public Transportation Association, called the potential cuts “devastating.”
“Without any additional projects being recommended for funding, there are no more projects under the [federal] program,” Brady said. “It’s the end of the line.”
State and local officials could try to keep projects alive by continuing to plan and design them in hopes of getting federal construction aid in the future, he said, but doing so is expensive.
“It’s chilling to the industry,” Brady said. “Why spend the effort to stay in the pipeline when they’re not making any [construction funding] recommendations?”
While Congress can change much of a White House budget proposal, funding for new transit construction is largely at the discretion of the executive branch. Even if Congress appropriates money intended for specific projects — the Purple Line, for example, already has $325 million appropriated — state and local officials can’t access that money until the FTA signs a funding agreement.
Legally, Brady said, the FTA must evaluate state and local transit projects as they are planned and designed. However, he said, it remains unclear if the agency is required to spend money that Congress allots for construction or if it could sit on any appropriations by refusing to sign new funding agreements.
A senior Transportation Department official alluded to such an approach in a comment to reporters Tuesday, saying, “We are continuing to follow the statutes and evaluating projects that are brought to FTA, but our president’s budget proposal is to wind down new investments in the future.”
Maryland officials have said they can’t afford the Purple Line’s $2 billion construction without federal aid covering nearly half. The Purple Line would link Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
The question now is how long it will take to resolve the 2014 lawsuit alleging flaws in the Purple Line’s environmental impact study. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is expected to appeal the latest court ruling.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has said in court filings that the state would have to suspend pre-construction work as of June 1 unless it had a “foreseeable path” to resolving the lawsuit and a “reasonable expectation” that it would once again become eligible for federal aid.
Asked about that June 1 deadline this week, Rahn said in a statement, “In light of [Monday’s] ruling, MDOT is reviewing all possible procedural and legal options.”
Maryland officials have said they could begin construction on the line within a few weeks of securing federal grants.