Opinion: Purple Line Remains a Great Value

The first bit of track for the Purple Line was put down in Lanham. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

That companies building Maryland’s Purple Line have threatened to withdraw does indicate that costs are likely to increase and that the project will be delayed, but it does not throw the value of the project into doubt.

Geography is the strength of the 16.2-mile light rail project.

More than 150,000 people already live within a half-mile of its 21 planned stations and could use the Purple Line to travel to job centers, including the under-ten-minute trip the line would make possible between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The concentration of people and jobs, combined with trains arriving every 7.5 minutes during rush hour (and options to increase that frequency to every 5 or 6 minutes), drive forecasts of about 69,300 daily riders by 2040 and 16,800 cars taken off area roads.

At a time of strained budgets, evidence of the estimated 1-to-2.2% economic growth the Purple Line will stimulate can be seen in construction that is already underway. Those projects include new, much-needed housing in Washington D.C.’s expensive inner suburbs, transit-oriented development in Riverdale, and expanded Kaiser Permanente facilities at New Carrollton.

The pandemic crisis highlights the importance of Maryland’s life sciences cluster. And, by weaving together four branches of Metrorail, the Purple Line will provide direct access to the University of Maryland and M-Square, and will improve connections to the rest of the state, including Baltimore hospitals accessible via MARC trains.

The infusion of over $1 billion in federal grants and concessionaire support for construction helps maintain the region’s economy during this pandemic. After a COVID-19 vaccine is in place and the line has opened, the Purple Line will leverage Maryland’s strengths to aid in a strong recovery.

These benefits make the Purple Line a good deal even if the dispute between the state and the builders has raised the project’s costs.

Purple Line opponents triggered delays and about $150 million in cost increases when they convinced a judge to suspend construction for most of a year.

Freight rail company CSX has been slow and inflexible in negotiations, but they have at last made clear their demands. The builder has criticized Maryland’s pace with property acquisition, but we can now see progress.

Maryland reports that 28% of construction is complete.

And the Purple Line’s public-private partnership (P3) has overcome challenges that hampered Metrorail’s Silver Line construction: the concessionaire has regularly tested the quality of concrete and, where necessary, undertaken fixes at their own expense.

Still, the dispute between Maryland and the builder, if handled badly, risks compounding costs and delays. However, the private concessionaire remains committed, Maryland owns the project, and state retains a strong hand for resolving the dispute.

Costs may end up closer to estimates by the prior administration. That outcome would be in line with 2014 research by the Brookings Institution that found P3s are not a panacea, nor often the cheapest option for construction, but that P3s can provide great value over decades of operation because of performance incentives.

We encourage the state and concessionaire to resolve negotiations quickly. The best outcome — Maryland and the builder reaching a reasonable arrangement — is still on the table if a deal can be reached within the 60-90 day withdrawal period.

Meanwhile, the state and concessionaire have the option to confer with other builders, and their estimates would put the current numbers to a competitive test.

It is time to update cost and schedule estimates, but due to the Purple Line’s fundamental strengths, any fair and wise agreement will still be a bargain for the benefits it will deliver to Maryland.

— GREG SANDERS

The writer is vice president of Purple Line Now.