The team of private companies hired to build, operate and maintain the Purple Line isn’t looking to back out of its $5.6-billion contract with the Maryland Transit Administration, despite the project being stalled due to a pending lawsuit, the team’s leader said Tuesday.
Rob Chappell, chief executive and project manager for Purple Line Transit Partners, said the team hasn’t gotten cold feet, even though the project’s construction start date has been delayed indefinitely since August, when a judge’s ruling in the lawsuit made it ineligible for critical federal construction funding. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon is reconsidering that ruling at the request of lawyers for the federal and state transit agencies.
“For the time being and the immediate future — for the next three to four months — we’re on board,” Chappell told reporters Tuesday, after transit activists held a rally in downtown Silver Spring to urge the judge to reverse his August ruling quickly. “We’re always going to be on board until a determination is made that we’re not going to be. Right now, we’re looking to be on board as long as our partners in the state will have us because we’re committed to building this project.”
At some point, a reporter pressed, won’t companies need to cut their losses and move on? Purple Line Transit Partners signed onto the project a year ago, and state officials have said every month of delay costs the project more than $13 million. If the private partner terminates the contract because of extended delays, the state would have to pay the team termination costs, which state officials have said could exceed $100 million.
“Right now, we’ve made the commitment,” Chappell said. “Of course, it’s always in the back of your mind, but … we’re confident the project’s going to move forward.”
The voluminous 36-year contract for the Purple Line project’s public-private partnership sets out in detail how the team of companies, known as the concessionaire, could try to terminate the contract, recover any costs or move back agreed-upon deadlines in case of extended delays. State officials have said more than 200 engineers, architects and technicians have continued to design the line and do preliminary engineering work.
“Right now, we’re not looking for any kind of delay action,” Chappell said. “We’ll wait until the judge makes his decision.”
When Leon will rule is anyone’s guess, and he has no deadline for doing so. Lawyers for federal and state transit agencies had asked Leon to issue a decision by April 28, but that date has come and gone. The judge is deciding, in part, whether the Federal Transit Administration has sufficiently considered any impacts that Metro’s falling ridership could have on future Purple Line ridership before it approved the project. Purple Line opponents who filed the lawsuit allege that the project’s environmental study gave short shrift both to Metro’s potential impacts and environmental regulations.
The fate of the $2 billion construction project is being watched in both the transportation and financial worlds because it’s one of the first U.S. transit projects to involve a public-private partnership that relies on private financing. State officials have said that, if the partnership unravels, Maryland could have trouble attracting private investors for future infrastructure projects.
Reporters tried to pin down Chappell on a fish-or-cut-bait date.
“At this point, we haven’t discussed it,” he said. “It’s in the back of everybody’s mind, but we haven’t talked about it. … We have a commitment with the state to keep moving forward. There may come a time, but I don’t see that in the near future at all. We’re in it for the long term. We’ve committed for years to have people here to support this.”
The Purple Line is slated to have 21 stations in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.