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New Purple Line contractors selected to resume full construction this spring

The companies, Dragados and OHL, will take over a Maryland light-rail project that’s more than two years behind schedule and $250 million over budget.

Most construction sites for Maryland's light-rail Purple Line were abandoned in September 2020 after the contractor quit over cost disputes with the state. A new construction contracting team, led by companies Dragados and OHL, is expected to resume major work in spring 2022. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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A new construction team selected to complete Maryland’s Purple Line is expected to restart full-scale work on the stalled light-rail project this spring, state transportation officials and a private consortium managing the project said Friday.

However, answers to the most pressing questions — when the line will begin carrying passengers and how much the $2.25 billion construction project ultimately will cost — won’t be revealed until the finalized contracts go to the Maryland Board of Public Works for approval, project officials said. The timing for review by the board, made up of the governor, state treasurer and comptroller, wasn’t released.

Firms managing Purple Line construction begin search for new contractor

Securing a new contractor would reboot a chronically troubled light-rail project that fell behind schedule even before construction started in 2017. The project has limped along after imploding last year amid a legal battle between the previous contractor and the state over delays and cost overruns. The Purple Line will now rely on a lead construction company with its own share of disputes over escalating costs and scheduling setbacks.

The selected companies, Dragados USA and OHL USA, are American subsidiaries of major Spanish construction firms. They will replace the previous construction team, led by Texas-based Fluor, which quit in September 2020 following several years of cost disputes with the state. The walk-off resulted in a 16-mile stretch of construction sites left mostly abandoned through Washington’s inner suburbs.

The Purple Line was originally scheduled to open in March 2022 but remains about half-finished, state officials said. The time required to get the new contractor in place would add about 18 months to the schedule, in addition to the more than 2½ years of delays cited by the previous contractor.

Dragados and OHL offered the “best value,” project officials said. Those making the selection also didn’t have much choice: Though three teams were shortlisted to bid, only one other, led by a joint venture of Tutor Perini and Lunda Construction, submitted a proposal. The third team, led by Halmar International, did not end up bidding.

Dragados would join the Maryland project after experiencing major delays and cost overruns on several other recent projects, according to news accounts. While it’s not uncommon for large and complex infrastructure projects to finish late and over budget, the company has drawn scrutiny in at least four states.

In California, it is seeking more than $500 million in additional payment for a segment of high-speed rail line it’s helping to build, according to the Los Angeles Times. Those cost escalations would be in addition to $700 million worth of cost escalations the state already has approved, the Times reported.

Purple Line project delays, cost overruns reveal long-brewing problems

In 2019, a jury required a construction team involving Dragados to pay $57.2 million in damages to the Washington State Department of Transportation for more than two years of delays on a highway tunneling project because of a broken tunnel boring machine, according to media reports.

In North Carolina, a Dragados highway project in Durham is more than two years behind schedule, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. In Texas, a joint venture that includes Dragados is more than two years late in replacing a major bridge, according to a project spokeswoman.

A spokesman for Dragados could not be reached for comment Friday. Four Dragados employees reached both in the company’s East Coast headquarters in New York and in satellite offices said they did not know of anyone authorized to speak to the media.

John Undeland, a spokesman for the private consortium, Purple Line Transit Partners, referred questions about Dragados’s selection to the Maryland Department of Transportation. The consortium, led by infrastructure investor Meridiam, is responsible for building the line, financing part of its construction and operating it for 30 years via a $5.85 billion public-private partnership.

In a news release, PLTP cited Dragados’s “great deal of fresh and relevant experience” on transit projects, including an automated “people mover” train at Los Angeles International Airport and three Canadian light-rail lines.

An MDOT spokeswoman said state and consortium officials reached out to government agencies that had worked with Dragados and OHL while evaluating their proposal.

The companies “received strong recommendations” on their “approach, partnership and ability to deliver transportation projects for the community,” MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said in an email. The joint venture, known as Maryland Transit Solutions, “brings years of strong leadership experience and a track record of completing major and complex infrastructure and delivering transit projects from California to Canada to Spain,” Henson wrote.

Purple Line uncertainty leaves residents, businesses in limbo

The east-west Purple Line will connect neighborhoods, Metro lines and MARC commuter rail stations in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Local officials are banking on its 21 stations to focus growth and attract development in older inner suburbs, particularly in Prince George’s, while providing a faster and more reliable alternative to buses. It will be the first direct suburb-to-suburb rail line in the Washington area.

Before quitting, the Fluor team had said construction was more than 2½ years behind schedule and $800 million over budget due to ongoing problems with state permits, design complications, land acquisition and delays stemming from a lawsuit. MDOT disputed the costs and scheduling delays but eventually agreed to pay the Fluor team $250 million to settle back-and-forth lawsuits.

Industry experts had predicted that competition for the rebid would be limited because some companies would be leery of taking over a large, complex project that was mostly designed and half-built by another contractor. It will require the new contractor to assume significantly higher financial risk — costs experts say will be passed on to the state.

MDOT has continued managing some of the Purple Line subcontracts, such as to move utility lines and manufacture the light-rail vehicles, since the original contractor quit. However, the lag in full-scale construction has been a major headache for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration. In addition to being one of the state’s largest infrastructure projects, the Purple Line has attracted national attention as the first U.S. light-rail project to include private financing.

Meet the Maryland transit official responsible for getting the Purple Line built

Any potential effects from pandemic-era supply chain problems also remain uncertain. Henson said such “additional risks” will be built into the updated contracts.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater said he was excited to “move full speed ahead” with the new contractor.

“We have made a lot of progress in this interim period,” he said in a statement. “Today’s news is one more step toward completion and one more step toward Marylanders riding on this critical transit connection.”

Some longtime Purple Line supporters said they welcomed what they hope will be new momentum on the beleaguered project.

Gregory Sanders, vice president of the pro-transit group Purple Line Now, said residents are tired of living amid mostly dormant construction sites. They include a partially built replacement of the Talbot Avenue bridge to connect two Silver Spring neighborhoods across CSX Transportation freight rail tracks.

“We’re absolutely excited,” Sanders said. “Maryland has been doing a lot of work in the interim, but getting the Purple Line to opening day and addressing disruptions in the meantime requires a new builder.”