The planned Purple Line would run 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carollton, and would cost $2.2 billion to build.
Three of the candidates running to succeed Democrat Martin O’Malley as Maryland’s governor plus the running mate of a fourth stated their support for the $2.2 billion Purple Line project at a candidates forum in Silver Spring Tuesday, but they conceded questions concerning funding and operation of the proposed 16-mile light rail system from Bethesda to New Carrollton remain to be resolved.
Three Democrats — Attorney General Doug Gansler, State Delegate Heather Mizeur, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (the running mate of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown) — were joined by a single Republican candidate, Charles Lollar, on a stage at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center during the forum hosted by the advocacy group Purple Line NOW!
The candidates were not asked pointed questions about the Purple Line’s future during the hour-long forum, but in remarks to reporters following the event they addressed the project’s uncertain funding and the O’Malley administration’s controversial decision to seek a private entity to design, construct, operate and maintain the transit system.
The Maryland Transit Administration is asking the federal government for matching funds approaching $1 billion to construct the Purple Line. The funds would come from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts grant program. Large transit projects across the country compete for those dollars, and Maryland is still waiting for a decision on when and how much federal cash will flow to the Purple Line.
All the candidates except Doug Gansler agreed the Purple Line will not be built without significant federal dollars.
“We need to have a Plan B,” Gansler said. “There is no guarantee we are going to get that federal money which is why we need to have a backup plan.”
When asked what his administration would do if the state does not receive the necessary federal matching funds, the attorney general said Maryland would have to create jobs to generate more tax revenues.
“Our tax base is dwindling, and if we don’t get our economy back and bring jobs back to Maryland… that is our number one priority. We need to bring jobs back to Maryland so then we can have revenue to build projects like the Purple Line,” said Gansler, who said Virginia has $1 billion in a rainy day fund because the state focused on job creation.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has a backup plan should federal money not come through.
“It’s to divide it into smaller contracts, so if the piece is too big to get a coherent price for the entire project the MTA will break it into pieces,” said Ralph Bennett, president of the board of Purple Line NOW! “Beyond that they don’t have a Plan B.”
The four candidates expressed support for the decision to seek a public-private partnership (P3) to build the Purple Line, but some did so with reservations. Del. Mizeur stated the deepest concerns with the P3 process.
“I am still reserving the right to object to it,” Mizeur said. “If we don’t determine what will happen if these companies go bankrupt in the middle of construction or operating the Purple Line; what do we do if our ridership numbers don’t meet the projections; are we going to assure transparency throughout this process; will they throw up proprietary rights over every negotiation we have about fares, ridership numbers, and issues related to the proper working of [the project]. These are important questions we have to ask.”
Using a P3 for a transit project of this size is rare. In Virginia, a public-private partnership was used to build the $1.9 billion 495 Express Lanes. The private entity — the construction conglomerate Transurban — will receive the automated toll revenues for the next seven decades in exchange for its investment of $1.5 billion to construct the 14-mile highway expansion. In a deal for the Purple Line project, Maryland would agree to make “availability payments” for several decades in order to ensure a profit for the private operator and to keep fares affordable. The Maryland Transit Administration has chosen four teams of private companies to bid on the Purple Line.
“This is a unique opportunity,” said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, representing the absent Lt. Gov. Brown on stage, a supporter of the P3. “But we also know with a project this expensive we want to have all the tools at our disposal. P3s are important tools… but there needs to be all the due diligence to make sure this is a deal to make sense for the taxpayers and citizens of Maryland.”
Attorney General Gansler said he “philosophically favors” public-private partnerships.
“The private sector is in it to make money. They are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. So the question is, is it a fiscally responsible deal that is being levied by the state? And are the consumers of Maryland being protected by that deal? There has never been a project like this in the United States, ever,” he said.
Republican Charles Lollar said he supports using a P3 for the Purple Line.
“It helps to secure future funding now to be used for projects like the Purple Line and other projects outside of transportation,” he said. “How those funds are used and monitored is very important to me.”
The state and federal governments have committed more than $200 million for preliminary engineering, and state and local (Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties) funds may be able to cover design phase expenses, but the promise of significant FTA grant money may be necessary to begin construction by the end of the next year, which is the Maryland Transit Administration's plan.