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Hogan’s decision on light-rail Purple Line expected by mid-May

Map shows proposed route of the Purple Line. (Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)
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While Maryland transportation officials recently extended a major bid deadline for building a light-rail Purple Line until August, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is expected to decide the project’s fate by mid-May, a state spokeswoman said Wednesday.

On Feb. 20, the Maryland Department of Transportation agreed to the four bidders’ request for 60 days to propose “innovative” cost-cutting measures on the planned 16-mile rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson. The line is now estimated to cost $2.45 billion to build and $55 million annually to operate and maintain — costs that Hogan has called too expensive.

Hogan is then expected to review the bidders’ cost-cutting proposals, along with a state analysis of the project’s design and costs, and decide by mid-May whether to continue the project, Henson said. If the governor decides to move ahead with the transit plan, bidders would have until Aug. 19 to finalize their proposals, Henson said. The previous bid deadline, which had been extended once before, was March 12.

Advocates both for and against a Purple Line are trying to determine whether Hogan’s administration is buying more time to try to save the project at a lower price, or is delaying a politically thorny announcement on the project’s future until after the General Assembly session ends April 13. State legislative delegations for heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as the counties’ congressional delegation, have lobbied heavily for the transit project, and Hogan needs to work with the Democratic-led legislature to get his own proposals passed.

State officials have said they hopes to begin construction later this year and open the line to service in 2020, but that timeline is now in question with the bid deadline extension.

In a Feb. 12 interview, acting Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, who is heading the state’s Purple Line cost analysis, said he is focusing on “what the need was for every feature in the project” and prioritizing “the needs of the system over the wants of a project.”

Rahn said the state does not plan to reduce costs by shortening or altering the alignment between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

A Purple Line, which would not be part of the  Metrorail system, would be designed to provide faster and more reliable east-west transit than buses, rejuvenate older inner-Beltway communities around its 21 stations, and connect Maryland’s Metro lines with neighborhoods and Amtrak and MARC commuter rail stations. Proponents say the line is vital to the region’s economic growth and transportation network, while opponents say it is too expensive, would disrupt neighborhoods and destroy a popular wooded trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date on which MDOT agreed to the bidders’ request. The story has been corrected.