The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Purple Line is in the news again — for the usual reasons

A construction zone on the Purple Line between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. (Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)
4 min

A top official directing the construction of Maryland’s Purple Line last year addressed the vagaries of this large-scale transit project: “A good number of the surprises have been uncovered and resolved, but there will be things,” said Terry Gohde, project manager for the joint venture building the Purple Line, told The Post.

“Things,” indeed, have arisen. Again.

As The Post’s Katherine Shaver reported, the start date for the 16-mile light-rail link between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties could slide another seven months, into mid-2027 — or about five years after the completion target of March 2022. The culprit for this latest glitch is the relocation of utility lines. A technical report dated Nov. 28 says the delay “pertains to the complexity involved with coordinating several utilities on a single utility pole as a particular order must be followed, and each utility has their own process for requesting a relocation.”

David Abrams, Maryland state spokesman for the Purple Line, notes that the contractual deadline for completion of the project hasn’t budged — and that the report predicting fresh delays was required for financing purposes. “Building a complex transportation project through a 16-mile corridor of vibrant and active communities is never going to be an easy task,” says a statement from Abrams.

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Correct — especially when its administrators blunder through years of bad contracting and project-management decisions. Those decisions have bloated what was to be a five-year project with almost $2 billion in construction costs into a nearly 10-year, $3.4 billion undertaking. The lowlights include a shortsighted effort by former governor Larry Hogan to pinch pennies on construction costs; timeline-extending litigation from NIMBY groups and others; and a rupture in 2020 of the Purple Line’s public-private partnership in which the original construction team abandoned the project, delaying it by more than a year and adding nearly $1.5 billion in costs.

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All Maryland taxpayers are losers in this deal, though the folks who traverse the proto-Purple Line’s swath of ripped-up streets and closed trails bear a particular, interminable burden.

Little comfort comes from the fact that the Purple Line has plenty of company in the United States when it comes to much-delayed, over-budget transit projects. America stinks at building rail, as a group of researchers at the Transit Costs Project have shown by comparing the superior performance of other countries on this front. Eric Goldwyn, an assistant professor at New York University’s Marron Institute and a member of the Transit Costs Project team, points out that Madrid built about 80 miles of subway in two four-year tranches. New York built the nearly two-mile Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway line in about a decade.

“A lot of it is that we don’t necessarily prioritize speed in the way that we should,” says Goldwyn. “The other thing is the longer project takes, the more likely some crazy thing is going to happen.”

In the Purple Line drama, some not-so-crazy things have contributed to the delays or hardships, including permitting problems, negotiations with freight rail company CSX Transportation and, now, the utility issues. After the initial construction team pulled out in 2020, the state took over work on utilities to keep the project from stagnating.

The regional imperatives behind the Purple Line, meanwhile, are as robust as ever. Del. Marc Korman, a Democrat who represents a Montgomery County district, says a majority of commuters in the county move within the suburb or among the suburbs. Which is to say, the suburbanization of transit needs to accompany the suburbanization of work in the region. Yet the face of suburban transit around Washington right now is the delay-plagued Purple Line. “I think obviously there’s a lot of reputational damage,” says Korman. “The way out is a working, functional project, which is why they need to keep plowing ahead.”

Local jurisdictions could produce better transit projects, says Goldwyn, if they bring in experts from abroad to guide their decision-making; boost cooperation among government agencies and utilities; hire permanent staffers with transit-building expertise, instead of relying on outside consultants; place less emphasis on price and more emphasis on technical merit and speed in awarding contracts; and standardize regulations so that contractors everywhere can compete for projects, among other ideas.

To cut through all the particulars, the region needs to get better at building transit by … building more transit. It’s no coincidence that the Purple Line will also be the first suburb-to-suburb rail connection in the Washington region.

If Maryland officials don’t get their house in order, it could well be the last. They’ve already furnished a powerful talking point for any NIMBY group looking to oppose a similar plan in the future: Look how long it took them to build the Purple Line!

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