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Purple Line set to open in fall of 2022, despite year-long delay in construction start, Maryland official says

Workers are rebuilding the Lyttonsville Place bridge in Silver Spring as part of the Purple Line's construction. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)
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Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line remains on schedule to begin carrying passengers in the fall of 2022, despite construction starting a year late, a top state transit official said Thursday.

Charles Lattuca, who oversees construction for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the state and the project’s contracting team, Purple Line Transit Partners, are discussing ways to accelerate what was to be about 5½ years of work. So far, he said, they don’t think any additional time will be necessary.

"I think we're going to be able to do it,” Lattuca told the Montgomery County Council's transportation committee during a briefing on the project's progress.

Fred Craig, chief executive of Purple Line Transit Partners, sounded a more cautious note, saying the October 2022 opening date remains the contractor’s “goal.”

"I'll tell you,” Craig said, "the truth is it's a challenge, definitely a challenge."

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When asked how the project wouldn't require more time if it got underway a year late, Craig said, "We are working on what that time is."

"It's not a year,” he added.

After the meeting, Craig said project officials were able to continue designing the line, securing permits and buying right-of-way during the year of delay.

That target date has already slipped by six months. The Purple Line was initially scheduled to begin carrying passengers in March 2022, according to the project’s $5.6 billion contract signed in spring 2016.

The contract formed a public-private partnership in which the contracting team will help finance the Purple Line, design and build it, and then operate and maintain it for 30 years as the state makes monthly payments. The Purple Line has attracted national attention because it has one of the most far-reaching public-private partnerships of any U.S. transit project.

Construction on the 16-mile rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties started in August 2017. The project, which was tied up in a three-year environmental lawsuit filed by opponents, began construction after a federal appeals court ultimately ruled in the state’s favor.

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Lattuca said there is "some float” in the schedule, meaning an assumption that some work will occur more quickly than planned, leaving more time for work that takes longer.

The contract allows construction to occur around-the-clock, if necessary, but construction workers would still have to abide by noise limits, Craig said. Time also could be made up by working longer shifts or overlapping more work, projects officials said.

Which side -- the state or contractor -- would have to pay any additional costs would depend on who is responsible for the delays, according to the contract. Craig told the council the contract includes “very, very, very significant penalties" if the contractor’s work is late.

Council members also pressed Lattuca on why the MTA won’t reimburse business owners along the alignment for revenue lost due to customers being unable, or unwilling, to navigate construction to reach them.

Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said small businesses, particularly in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring, are "in danger of closing” due to construction occurring over several years outside their front doors.

Businesses seek financial help to weather Purple Line losses

"It would be highly ironic if some of the businesses we're trying to help with the Purple Line project go out of business because of its construction,” Hucker said.

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) asked Lattuca why the state couldn't reimburse businesses for financial losses.

"I think it’s your responsibility,” Berliner said. “This is your project.”

Lattuca said he is sympathetic to the businesses, but the Maryland Department of Transportation doesn’t have such a reimbursement program for any of the “hundreds” of projects statewide.