The transition to a Donald Trump presidency is unlikely to delay the start of construction on Maryland’s 16-mile light-rail Purple Line, said several transit experts with close knowledge of how the federal government awards the funding considered critical to the project.
The Purple Line’s construction start date, initially set for late October, has been in limbo since Aug. 3. That’s when a federal judge made the project ineligible for federal money in the last days of a years-long funding quest by ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that criticized the project’s environmental study. The judge has yet to rule on the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) motion asking him to reconsider that decision. The ruling would require the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to redo the Purple Line’s ridership forecasts to factor in Metro’s declining ridership.
The light-rail line, which would connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, would be operated separately from Metro, but about a quarter of its ridership is projected to come from Metro passengers. It is scheduled to open in 2022.
If the lawsuit is resolved before Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20, the FTA is likely to formally commit to a multiyear agreement to contribute $900 million toward its $2 billion construction budget, the experts said. The project is ready to go, and it’s common for one administration to sign multiyear funding deals that will spill over into future administrations, they said.
The Purple Line has met all the requirements of the funding process, including the hardest one — securing nonfederal construction dollars via a 36-year, $5.6 billion public-private partnership.
“The system couldn’t function if there were stops and starts every time a new administration came into office,” said Peter Rogoff, chief executive of the Seattle area’s transit authority and President Obama’s first FTA administrator. “When states and localities develop these things over a number of years, you can’t just tell them all bets are off.”
MTA spokesman Ryan Nawrocki said the state isn’t worried.
“Currently, MTA doesn’t have any concerns whether it’s this administration or the next administration,” Nawrocki said. “We’re confident the [federal funding agreement] will go forward.”
Jeff Boothe, a transit consultant, said there’s precedent for the FTA approving federal construction money well into an administration’s last days.
“They’ll execute grant agreements if projects are ready, and they’ll try to get them done before the inauguration,” Boothe said.
Even if the project’s funding quest is delayed into a Trump administration, transit advocates say they’re optimistic his call for a boom in infrastructure investments is good news for transit projects like the Purple Line.
Greg Sanders, vice president of Purple Line Now, said the advocacy group will be watching Trump’s transportation appointments.
“Unless we see signals that he’s putting people in key positions who are transit skeptics, then I think overall his message about the need for an infrastructure surge takes over,” Sanders said. “You don’t do an infrastructure surge by killing projects.”
Andrew Brady, senior director of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association, said he met with Trump’s transition team in early October. He said the team included transportation experts focused on details.
“We were really impressed with the Trump operation,” Brady said. “They reached out and asked a lot of good questions about the needs in the public transportation space and, if there were a big infrastructure initiative, what the industry would like to see. We’re really optimistic that they get this and want to do something.”
The bigger hurdle for the Purple Line’s construction proceeding anytime soon is likely to be the lawsuit, experts say. No one knows how long that will take to resolve. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon has no time limit on when he must decide, and the project can’t receive the federal money until the environmental study that he set aside based on the ridership forecasts is reinstated.
If the judge declines to reverse his decision, the FTA will probably appeal it, even though simply abiding by the ruling and redoing the ridership forecasts probably would be quicker than a continued legal fight. Two people familiar with the case said the FTA is concerned that Leon’s Purple Line ruling might set a legal precedent that would make it easier for opponents of rail projects nationwide to delay them by trying to invalidate their environmental approvals based on “new information.”
An FTA spokesman referred all questions about the Purple Line to the Justice Department, citing the pending lawsuit.