Or will he change his tune and commit state money to perhaps a cheaper version of the Purple Line that transit advocates and local officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties could still embrace?
Hogan has remained mum on the issue, but his acting state transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, said in a Feb. 12 interview, “I’m sure everyone is aware we’re looking at its costs.”
Then, last week, Rahn’s agency announced that it had pushed back by five months — from March to August — the deadline for the four teams of private companies bidding on a 35-year contract to design, build and operate the line, in addition to helping finance its construction.
And then, on Wednesday, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Hogan would decide the Purple Line’s fate well before then, in fact by mid-May. If the governor gave it a thumbs-up, then the bidding would continue until the new Aug. 19 deadline.
So is Hogan’s administration stalling so he can kill the Purple Line in mid-May — after the Maryland General Assembly session ends April 13? (That way, he wouldn’t risk angering Montgomery and Prince George’s lawmakers who have lobbied hard for the project and whose support he’ll want on his own legislative proposals.)
Or is the new governor taking time to diligently investigate whether there’s a way to save the project for less money?
The Post asked Purple Line watchers — advocates as well as opponents — what they thought. What do they read in the tea leaves of a bid delay? How do they see the politics playing out? The Post granted both sides anonymity to allow everyone to speak frankly. Both sides agreed on many points.
Why a five-month bid delay might bode well for the project’s construction:
* Purple Line advocates say it forces Hogan to make a decision, rather than endlessly study the project into oblivion. One local official said he heard from state transit officials that the bidders asked for more time not just to come up with potential cost-cutting measures — as MDOT has said — but because they didn’t want to invest more money in finalizing their bids until Hogan gave a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the project. The bidders also would have trouble securing millions in financing for a massive, highly complex state project that doesn’t yet have a governor’s blessing. The highly technical bids can cost companies well over $10 million to put together, and one of the most expensive parts — lining up financing — comes toward the end. MDOT’s statement that Hogan will make a decision by mid-May shows that the bidders can exert some pressure on the state not to stall too long.
* While Hogan sounded during the campaign like he might kill the project within hours of his swearing-in, his administration is taking time to look at ways it might be built and operated more cheaply. The Purple Line wasn’t a big campaign issue, so while Hogan’s campaign said he favored more money for roads over transit, it didn’t sound like the candidate had done an in-depth analysis of a Purple Line’s pros and cons. Purple Line advocates say they hope Hogan will see what they see: a transit line that would attract jobs and economic development around its 21 stations, particularly in older inner-Beltway suburbs in Prince George’s. Opponents say they hope Hogan’s closer look will convince him of their view that a light-rail line wouldn’t generate enough of the ridership or economic gains promised to make it worth billions.
Why it might mean the end for the Purple Line:
* The five-month delay means it’s unlikely the state would receive $100 million in federal transit funds appropriated for the Purple Line this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. If the bids come in around the deadline of Aug. 19, it would still take MDOT weeks or months to analyze them and choose a winner. Then the state would need more time to devise its detailed financial plan and clinch a funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration, which is required before MDOT could secure any federal money. (MDOT is seeking a total $900 million in federal construction aid.) Sure, the Obama administration has recommended another $100 million for a Purple Line in fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1. But there’s no guarantee that Congress would appropriate that money, especially since Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) lost her chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee when the Republicans took over the Senate.
* There aren’t a lot of obvious ways to whack major expenses from the 16-mile project, except perhaps to take out some bridges that would carry trains over particularly busy roads. But that would leave traffic on already heavily congested roads like Connecticut Avenue having to stop to allow trains to pass — not a way to win public support. A rapid-bus option would be far cheaper than light rail, but it’s unclear whether local elected officials would support a bus system.
* The political momentum that the Purple Line had for eight years under former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has definitely slowed, if not shifted. A project that once had such an air of certainty that supporters were looking forward to construction starting later this year now is back to the serious scrutiny stage.