Transit Officials Vow to See Purple Line Project Through, But Montgomery Leaders Seek Commitment From Hogan

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao after signing a document in 2017 guaranteeing $900 million in federal aid for the Purple Line. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Stung by a court decision last week that allows their private sector partners to walk off the job, Maryland transit officials on Tuesday vowed to see the massive Purple Line project to completion.

But beyond offering general assurances during a virtual briefing before the Montgomery County Council, they were unable to provide many specifics for how the transit project linking New Carrollton to Bethesda would proceed. And council members pressed the state bureaucrats on the importance of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) also publicly expressing a commitment to completing the job.

“The governor’s not a passenger on this he’s driving the train,” said Councilmember Hans Riemer (D).

A Baltimore judge ruled on Thursday that the private entities managing the Purple Line construction can quit over disputes with the state about who should be responsible for approximately $800 million in cost overruns. That officially enabled the concessionaire, Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), to cease work on Monday afternoon.

Kevin Quinn, administrator of the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration and Matt Pollack, Purple Line project director for MDOT/MTA, told the council Tuesday that they could not discuss the next steps in the ongoing litigation, or whether the state would seek to appeal last week’s decision. But they said state officials are talking to Purple Line subcontractors to see what aspects of the construction can continue in the short term and the practicalities of MDOT/MTA taking over management of the project ― either temporarily or permanently.

“My priority right now is delivering this project for the citizens of Montgomery County and Prince George’s,” Quinn said. But he quickly added, “I don’t want to sit here and say there won’t be stumbling blocks along the way.”

Beginning Tuesday, state construction crews and crews from the project contractors are walking the 16-mile route, where work is under way in many areas, to secure the construction sites and ensure that pedestrians, motorists and equipment along the route will be safe. Quinn said apart from any additional litigation, the state was continuing to negotiate with PLTP and should have a better idea in about 30 days what the short-term steps for ensuring momentum on the project should be.

A longer-term strategy should take about four to six months to develop, he said. “There’s a number of long-term paths that this project could take, and each one has its own permutations.”

Council members said they were concerned that their constituents, who have already been disrupted by Purple Line construction, were being left in the dark and that their inconvenience, which is sparking anger, could extend indefinitely.

“The sooner people know what you know, the better, even if it’s not fully complete,” Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) told the state transit officials. “Because people will speculate.”

Pollack said the state would resume regular meetings with community groups on the project later in the fall ― likely in November, when there is more information to impart.

Hucker also expressed concern for the workers on the project, saying their livelihoods could be interrupted during a period of great economic uncertainty. Quinn said whether the state could rehire all the workers would depend on contracts with certain subcontractors and federal rules, but added that the state would seek to retain “incumbent” workers wherever possible.

Council members also expressed fear that the project’s repeated delays eroded their constituents’ faith in government, and Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D) said some of her neighbors came from dysfunctional countries where public works projects regularly aren’t completed.

“I’ve heard from constituents who say, ‘Wow, I never imagined I’d see something like this in Montgomery County,” she said.

But most of all, the Montgomery lawmakers asserted that Hogan needs to publicly state his commitment to completing the Purple Line, not just rely on lawyers and transportation officials to sort through the aftermath of the court ruling. Constituents are less interested in the details of the negotiations and intricacies of contract law than they are in knowing that there is unvarnished support for the project and that there will be measurable progress soon, they said.

“I have yet to meet a resident who feels strongly about who builds this,” said Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D).

“I’m not able to speak for the governor,” Quinn said at one point. But later he emphasized the state’s funding commitment to the project and the steps state officials took to secure federal funding for the light rail line.

“I think the governor has stepped up and supported this project,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, several hours after the conclusion of the Montgomery County Council briefing, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci released a statement confirming the administration’s support for the project.

“There’s no question that the Purple Line is an important project for the state and the region. It creates jobs, connects communities, and improves our infrastructure,” Ricci said. “The governor fully supports [Transportation] Secretary [Greg] Slater’s efforts to get the project done and protect taxpayers while ensuring we have a partner that also has the best interests of Marylanders in mind.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.