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Federal Budget Uncertainty May Shortchange Maryland's Purple Line

Supporters of the Purple Line project in the Maryland suburbs expect a decision soon on whether the $2.2 billion light rail system will receive federal dollars to help build it.

The Maryland Transit Administration is relying on federal funding to help build the Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton — through the New Starts program, the government's primary grant program for major transit projects. Maryland is seeking matching funds — for every dollar the state dedicates to the Purple Line, the federal government would contribute a dollar, too.

But budget uncertainty in Congress means officials cannot guarantee the money will be there.

"I don’t want to dash peoples’ hopes. It is certainly on the short list of projects that we want to move forward on next, but the reality is we can’t make funding commitments without knowing that the dollars are going to be there," says Peter Rogoff, who heads the Federal Transit Administration, the agency that has the responsibility of approving the Purple Line's funding.

Rogoff says the Obama administration is asking Congress to increase funding for the New Starts program, but after sequestration more money may be unlikely.

"We are hopeful that we will be able to continue to move forward on projects that show promise like the Purple Line, but with all the funding uncertainty in Congress last year for the first time we actually had to reduce the amounts we had committed to each project across the country because of sequester," he says.

If the goal is to build an expensive next generation transportation system — not only in the D.C. suburbs, but across the country — whether it's light rail, streetcars or bus rapid transit, Congress will have to establish new funding sources. That money probably won't come from a higher gas tax though, as neither Congress nor the president supports raising it.

"The biggest hurdle that surrounds this whole program nationally, not just in Maryland, is knowing that there is going to be funding, that we can join as a federal partner in projects of this kind," says Rogoff.

As for the Purple Line, the FTA received roughly 1,000 comments during the public comment period and those are now under review. The FTA says a decision on whether the Purple Line will receive federal dollars — and how many — is expected late this year or early next year.

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