A transportation spending plan working its way through Congress includes $100 million to build a light-rail Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, despite a White House proposal to cut federal funding for new transit construction, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) said.
If the funding remains in the transportation appropriations bill, it would bring the federal allotment for the Purple Line to $425 million — almost half of the $900 million in federal aid that the Maryland Transit Administration is seeking to cover nearly half of the 16-mile line’s construction costs.
The state can’t receive any federal money for the Purple Line until, or unless, it signs a multiyear Full Funding Grant Agreement with the U.S. Transportation Department. Maryland officials were several days away from clinching a funding agreement under the Obama administration in 2016. However, a court ruling in a federal lawsuit opposing the Purple Line blocked the federal money.
A recent appellate court ruling in the lawsuit made the Purple Line once again eligible for federal grants, but the Trump administration hasn’t committed to funding it.
The version of the bill that reached the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday includes $2.13 billion to help states and localities build or expand transit lines, Van Hollen said. Much of that money would go to projects already underway.
The congressional ban on earmarks prevents money from being explicitly designated to individual projects. However, Van Hollen said, the bill includes “funding sufficient to support the Purple Line,” with $100 million in fiscal 2018, which starts Oct. 1.
The House version of the bill includes $1.7 billion for transit construction. The difference between that and the Senate proposal will be resolved during congressional negotiations.
Transit projects that already have federal funding agreements need about $1.2 billion to meet those prior commitments.
More than 50 public transit projects in two dozen states are seeking federal support, though many are in earlier planning stages, according to the American Public Transportation Association. In addition to the Purple Line, four other proposals — a streetcar in Orange County, Calif., two light-rail extensions in Minneapolis, and a light-rail extension north of Seattle — are on the cusp of signing federal funding agreements, the association said.
The Maryland congressional delegation had been nervous about the Purple Line’s funding chances after the Trump administration’s budget released this spring proposed eliminating new federal grants for transit construction. The White House said new and expanded rail and rapid-bus lines should be paid for solely by the states and localities that benefit from them.
Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is scheduled to discuss a federal funding agreement for the project with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday.
“All I can say is we’re very optimistic about it moving forward,” he said.
Andrew Brady, senior director of government affairs for APTA, cheered Congress for continuing to push federal funding for transit construction but cautioned that the numbers could change as budget negotiations continue. “It’s early,” Brady said. “There’s a lot that can happen.”