Construction on Maryland’s Purple Line, already 4½ years behind schedule, is facing another seven months of delay that could push back the light-rail line’s opening to mid-2027, according to a new project report.
The additional delays also pose immediate challenges for the new administration of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D).
Unless project officials find a way to accelerate work, the originally planned five years of construction would span almost a decade. That could double the amount of time that roads in a 16-mile swath of the Washington suburbs are ripped up, as well as the time the University of Maryland has construction running through its College Park campus. Meanwhile, businesses are struggling with lost parking and part of the popular Capital Crescent Trail remains off-limits.
The rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties previously was scheduled to begin carrying passengers in late 2026. It originally was scheduled to open last March.
However, when the new contractor, led by Spanish firms Dragados and OHL, came aboard in April, the state-managed work to move utility lines already was behind schedule, according to project reports. The Maryland Transit Administration took over managing the utility work in 2020 to keep part of the project moving during the search for a new contractor.
The first public mention of the overall schedule potentially slipping by another seven months appeared in a Nov. 28 report from a technical adviser for the project’s investor. The Washington Post obtained the report Wednesday.
Officials for the Maryland Department of Transportation and the MTA did not respond to questions Thursday about how much the reported delays would add to the project’s $3.4 billion cost, who would pay and why the state didn’t disclose a new timeline to the public.
In a statement, state officials said that the “contractual deadline” for the line’s opening date hasn’t changed and that they are still reviewing the delays referred to in the reports to investors. The state is exploring ways to accelerate work and “achieve greater efficiency,” the statement said, including by adjusting plans for roadway work zones, improving coordination between utilities and doing more work concurrently.
“Building a complex transportation project through a 16-mile corridor of vibrant and active communities is never going to be an easy task,” wrote David Abrams, the state’s Purple Line spokesman. “The Purple Line team is committed to developing and implementing solutions to address the challenges inherent on a project of this size, scope and magnitude.”
A spokesman for the private concessionaire managing the project for the state, led by infrastructure investor Meridiam, did not respond to questions Thursday.
Maryland House Majority Leader Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) said he was concerned that the MTA hadn’t mentioned the delays in its latest bimonthly Purple Line update to the General Assembly on Dec. 20. The legislature had required that those reports provide “an explanation of any material change to the total construction cost estimate or construction schedule,” according to the Department of Legislative Services website.
The fact that the contractor included the delays in its reports “suggests the contractor and Maryland Transit Administration are not fully aligned,” said Korman, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and the environment. “They need to figure out the mitigation and then give us a realistic assessment of the costs and time delays.”
Korman said he suspected something was wrong when he saw in the MTA’s December report that the percentage of utility relocations completed had remained at 64 percent since the previous update. In addition to not disclosing the delays to the legislature, he noted, state transit officials also didn’t tell the public.
“Both are problematic,” Korman said.
The project’s mounting costs and its inability to stay on schedule have drawn national attention because the Purple Line is one of the first U.S. transit projects to rely on private financing as part of a 36-year public-private partnership. As governments have turned to such partnerships to finance expensive infrastructure projects, the Purple Line’s problems have highlighted the tension in government oversight of privately managed construction.
Workers are moving underground and overhead water, telecommunications and other utility lines in advance of widening roads to accommodate the light-rail tracks. The work often requires closing traffic lanes and sidewalks.
The late utility work has affected a complex schedule used to manage a massive project along busy roads. Such delays, particularly relatively early in a project, can set off a domino effect for work that must follow in a certain sequence.
The delays stem from problems in coordinating among several utilities that have lines attached to the same poles, according to the investors’ technical adviser report, which was based on information from the contractor.
State officials, the contractor and the private consortium managing the project formed a team to explore how the delays can be mitigated, such as by reordering some work, according to project reports.
A key question is whether delays will continue to mount as the state and contractor discuss how to reduce them and document who is responsible, which can pave the way for a court battle over who must pay for them. Under the previous contractor, millions of dollars in cost overruns continued to escalate as both sides denied responsibility. Eventually, the contractor quit, both sides ended up in court and the state agreed to pay the contractor a $250 million legal settlement.
Project officials publicly hinted of problems with the state’s utility work this past fall but did not specify delays in the overall schedule.
In a Nov. 16 presentation to Montgomery County business leaders, Doran Bosso, chief executive for the private concessionaire, said workers moving storm water sewer pipes had recently hit rock beneath Wayne Avenue east of downtown Silver Spring.
“It’s slower-going than we’d hoped,” Bosso said, according to a recording of the meeting.
Under the Purple Line partnership, the private concessionaire is managing the construction and helping to finance it before operating the rail line for 30 years. The state is reimbursing the team for construction costs and will pay off the private debt service in regular payments that also will cover the line’s operating costs and a profit for the concessionaire.
Construction delays also will affect Washington-area cyclists and runners. Purple Line officials have said they can’t reopen part of the Capital Crescent Trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring, which will run adjacent to the Purple Line tracks, until they no longer need it for construction vehicles.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) recommended on Tuesday delaying construction of a tunnel that would carry the trail beneath downtown Bethesda until after mid-2028, citing its estimated cost ballooning to $82.5 million. The county is paying for the trail to be rebuilt as part of the Purple Line project.
The Purple Line will run along the trail and local roads inside the Capital Beltway between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The line will be separate from Metro but will connect to four Metro stations, as well as Amtrak and MARC commuter rail stations. It will be the first direct suburb-to-suburb rail line in the Washington region.