After delaying the start of the Purple Line’s construction by a year, the Hogan administration announced Wednesday that it is ready to move forward with the light rail project in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
A private-sector contractor team, Purple Line Transit Partners, led by the construction firm Fluor Enterprises, was awarded a contract to start building the 16-mile line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
Construction may begin before the end of the year, pending the approval of the Maryland Board of Public Works in April.
After six years of construction and 30 years of passenger service, the state estimates its total cost will reach $3.3 billion for the long-in-the-works transit system. Most of Maryland’s tab will be paid in annual installments to the company that operates the light rail system.
The announcement caps an extensive effort by the state to reduce the overall cost. The governor pressured the private teams participating in the competitive bidding process to squeeze as much savings as possible from project.
“After eight months of hard work and tough negotiating, the Maryland Department of Transportation has met all three of the needed requirements and delivered a cost-effective Purple Line with a strong commitment from our federal, county and private partners,” Hogan said in a written statement.
In a conference call with reporters, Maryland’s transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, defended the decision to put the project on hold last year in order to bring the cost down.
“Absolutely, this was worth the time that we took in which we are saving $550 million for the taxpayers in delivering an excellent project for the Washington area,” Rahn said. “It was worth every minute, and every ounce of effort that we put into this.”
An acceptable price from the would-be private builder and operator was the final piece of the funding puzzle to fall into place. Maryland expects to secure $900 million in federal grants, already convinced its county partners to increase their upfront contributions, and reduced the state’s upfront cost.
“Following negotiations with Purple Line Transit Partners, an agreement has been set that will see the state’s upfront expenditure for Purple Line construction cost drop to $159.8 million — $8 million less than the $168 million threshold Governor Hogan originally announced,” the news release said.
Hogan’s negotiators also cut the state’s average “availability payments” to the private operator to “$149 million, versus an earlier estimate of $167 million over 30 years. These payments will cover financing, operations, maintenance, and future required capital repairs and replacements for the Purple Line.”
While applauding the governor’s announcement to green light the construction, Purple Line supporters questioned whether the touted savings would materialize.
“We just don't know what that all means,” said Ralph Bennett, the president of Purple Line Now!
“They probably have saved as much as they cost by delaying the project. We simply need to get past that. We don't understand fully where the economies have occurred,” Bennett said.
The details are buried inside a 2,000-page contract signed by Purple Line Transit Partners to design, build, finance, and operate the line.
“For instance, we do understand the headway during rush hour has been increased from 5 to 7 1/2 minutes which probably means buying fewer [railcars]. That's not so bad because we can buy more cars in the future,” Bennett said.
The Purple Line could be open for passenger service in 2022, if construction stays on schedule.
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