Maryland’s Purple Line remains on schedule to open in five years even though major construction has been delayed eight months by a pending federal lawsuit, a top state transit official told lawmakers Thursday.
How long that remains an accurate statement depends on two unknowns: When — and whether — a federal judge allows the project to go forward; and whether Maryland’s mostly Democratic congressional delegation or its Republican governor can save the Purple Line plan from a White House proposal that would greatly restrict federal funding for new transit projects.
Another new wrinkle: Project supporters had initially thought they had at least until Sept. 30 to try to secure what’s known as a full funding grant agreement. That’s because, even if the Trump proposal to limit new funding to projects that have such an agreement survives the appropriations process, it wouldn’t take effect until the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
But on Tuesday, the Trump administration also proposed limiting federal funding to transit projects with signed agreements for the rest of the current fiscal year, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). That proposal is part of the stopgap budget now under consideration to keep the government from shutting down April 29.
So the deadline for clinching federal money could be getting much tighter. Moreover, whether the Federal Transit Administration signs such funding agreements is up to the executive branch, said Andrew Brady, APTA’s senior director for government affairs. The Trump administration could simply stop signing any new funding agreements, despite whatever money Congress appropriates.
The Purple Line is on the verge of, but doesn’t yet have, an agreement for $900 million in federal aid — without which state officials have said Maryland can’t afford to build the $2 billion system. Moreover, it can’t secure one until — or unless — it prevails in the federal lawsuit opposing the project on environmental grounds.
Charles Lattuca, who oversees the Purple Line project for the Maryland Transit Administration, told the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils in an annual briefing Thursday that more than 200 engineers, architects and technicians have continued to design the 16-mile line and do pre-construction work, such as soil borings, while awaiting a ruling in the lawsuit.
Lattuca told council members that the contractor can stay on schedule by “resequencing” the construction schedule to make up for lost time. The east-west light-rail line would run inside the Capital Beltway between New Carrollton in Prince George’s and Bethesda in Montgomery.
“At this point we’re not delayed,” Lattuca said.
But at least one council member was openly skeptical of the state’s rosy outlook. Montgomery council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) noted that the we’re-still-on-track schedule also shows construction starting this spring.
“Obviously you’re not going to commence construction in spring 2017 unless something miraculous happens by June 20,” Floreen said, noting the last day of spring.
Floreen also noted that either side could appeal the judge’s ruling in the lawsuit, which would further delay the quest for federal money.
Several council members asked Lattuca for the state to file an “emergency pleading” with U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon, telling him that a ruling is needed quickly due to the Trump administration’s proposed spending cuts suddenly making the federal funding far more precarious.
“We’re all frustrated and waiting for the judge’s decision and equally frustrated because now there’s an extra hurdle because of the change in administrations,” said Prince George’s council member Todd M. Turner (D-Bowie).
Montgomery Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said the state has already spent $400 million in Purple Line planning.
“This project is now at risk in a way it shouldn’t have been at risk,” Berliner said.
Lattuca said “many other projects” across the country were at risk of losing “very popular” federal funding under the White House proposal.
“We’re going to hope that money is reinstated,” Lattuca answered.
Leon is expected to rule any day on whether federal officials adequately considered Metro’s declining ridership when it accepted the Purple Line’s ridership forecasts as part of the project’s environmental approval. About a quarter of the Purple Line riders are expected to come from Metro riders.
Meanwhile, the federal funding will get hashed out during the appropriations process in Congress, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) office has said the governor recently asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for Purple Line funding as part of the state’s infrastructure wish list.
Supporters say the Purple Line is exactly the kind of shovel-ready infrastructure project that Trump has called for, particularly because it involves private financing. But there’s also the question of how much political pull can come from Maryland’s mostly Democratic congressional delegation in a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican governor who didn’t support the president.
Brady, of the public transportation association, said he expects many members of Congress who have transit projects at risk will push back against the Trump administration’s proposed cuts, and the White House will need some of their support to get its budget passed.
“I imagine this won’t sit well with Congress,” Brady said.
Prince George’s council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) asked Lattuca what the state would do with the Purple Line if it doesn’t cinch federal funding.
“Is there a plan B?” Franklin asked.
Lattuca responded, “We do not have a plan B at this time.”