As supporters of the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties applaud the U.S. Department of Transportation’s move to recommend the light rail project for $100 million in federal funding in FY2015, opponents say the Obama administration is failing to investigate the environmental impacts posed by the $2.4 billion project.
Major step forward
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and acting Federal Transit Administrator Therese McMillan proposed $2.5 billion in funding for 26 ongoing and new projects in 16 states.
The Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, would be one of seven projects to receive a grant under the New Starts program designed to cover roughly half the total cost of new mass transit projects. The initial $100 investment would be a fraction of the $900 million Maryland is asking the federal government for, but it is a signal the agency intends to enter a “full funding grant agreement” to provide matching construction dollars to Maryland over several years.
“What it means to be in the fiscal year ’15 budget is that we expect the project will be ready over the next 12 months to enter into a full funding grant agreement… a multi-year contract between the Federal Transit Administration and the project sponsor,” said acting administrator McMillan.
No federal money, no Purple Line
“The federal funds at this point are a critical part,” said Henry Kay, the executive director for transit, development, and delivery at the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). “Federal funding is never a guarantee and I think it is incumbent upon us to develop and represent the most competitive project we can. We understand exactly what the federal government looks for in a good transit project and we think we have that in the Purple Line.”
Following the Obama administration’s funding recommendations, the project’s advocates expressed confidence Congress would follow through and deliver the cash to the Purple Line, which will compete for dollars with the other New Starts proposals if legislators decide to appropriate less than what the administration is recommending.
“The Purple Line is one of the best light rail projects in the country,” said Keith Haller, a board member at the advocacy group Purple Line NOW! “When you look at the proposed daily riders, when you look at the cars being taken off the road, when you look at its environmental impacts, and one of the new criteria is the jobs and economic activity that is going to be generated along the Purple Line, it will match up with any project in the country.”
The project’s estimated cost just jumped $200 million to $2.4 billion. Federal officials attributed the increase to financing costs and growing property acquisition expenses. Within the next few weeks, the MTA is expected to start acquiring some of the more than 100 homes and businesses that will have to be displaced to make way for the Purple Line in the densely built residential and commercial corridors in Montgomery County. The MTA faces the possibility of lawsuits over these land use and quality of life concerns.
Defenders of the Capital Crescent Trail contend the project will decimate the hiking and biking trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring (three miles), although other environmental and bicycling advocacy groups support the Purple Line.
“We're going to lose the trail,” said Ajay Bhatt, president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, who sent an email blast to 4,000 subscribers calling on them to protest the federal government’s funding plans. “The Obama administration has not thoroughly investigated the project.”
The final environmental impact statement was published last October, and the Federal Transit Administration’s “record of decision” is expected in the next several weeks. That decision will clears the way for construction. Bhatt said the administration risks damaging the trail unless it makes changes to the environmental plan.
“The trail is mature forest ecosystem, between 20 and 40 acres of green space inside the Beltway that can never be replaced,” Bhatt. “It says in the environmental impact statement that there will be a full deforestation between Bethesda and Silver Spring.”
Ultimately up to Congress
President Obama is proposing $17.6 billion for the FTA in FY2015, an increase of nearly $7 billion over what Congress authorized last year. The seven New Starts projects total $578 million next fiscal year, including the $100 million recommended for the Purple Line. Twelve existing projects with ongoing “full funding grant agreements” are slated for $1.4 billion. Congress will have some decisions to make.
“U.S. DOT makes recommendations to Congress about the projects they feel should receive full funding over a period of years, but then the appropriators in Congress have to approve that,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.
“There have been some occasions when DOT and Congress have disagreed about something, or DOT has rejected funding for a project and Congress made them go back and rework their analysis. That happened most notably on the Silver Line. But typically Congress respects the DOT’s recommendation on these projects because it is part of a process that has been developed over the past 30 years,” Schank said.
The federal highway trust fund, which pays for roads and transit with gas tax revenues, is expected to become insolvent (barring congressional action) in August, but the New Starts program relies on general fund revenues. However, the difference between the two funding sources has been blurred because the general fund has been used to replenish the trust fund to make up for exhausted gas tax revenues.