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Transportation

New Purple Line Contract Aims to Keep Construction Firms on the Job

Construction continued in April near unfinished Purple Line rail tracks at the Paul Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring. Getty Images photo by Drew Angerer.

Top Maryland transportation officials expressed optimism that when work on the Purple Line resumes this spring, the project will be able to avoid a repeat of the issues that have caused significant construction delays and cost overruns.

Late last month the Board of Public Works approved a contract with Maryland Transit Solutions (MTS), a newly formed consortium. The pact, once finalized, will allow full-scale construction on the project, which runs between Bethesda and New Carrollton, to resume in the coming months.

MTS will pick up where the original primary subcontractor, Purple Line Transit Constructors (PLTC), left off when they quit the project in 2020 due to a cost dispute.

At a hearing on Friday, members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Environment were told that the state’s contract with MLS no longer has language allowing its primary subcontractor to quit the project due to a protracted dispute.

That provision was utilized by PLTC nearly 18 months ago. The move came after the consortium successfully sued the Maryland Transit Administration, after talks over costs dragged on for over a year.

“The ability to walk off the project unconditionally has been removed from the revised contract,” said Matthew Pollack, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Purple Line project manager. “There are steps that we can take, from a contractual point of view, to keep them on the job.”

Jaclyn Hartman, the agency’s CFO, said there is also a new process for resolving differences between the state and the firms designing and building the project.

“There were dispute resolution boards contained in the original contract, but there is a new streamlined process in the revisions to the [public-private partnership] agreement,” she said. “There are also finite timelines that were set on the dispute resolution process, so that we can reach agreement on issues before they drag on for many years.”

The 16.2-mile Purple Line, which will have 21 stations when finished, is now four years behind schedule and way over budget. Under the original $5.6 billion contract, Purple Line Transit Partners agreed to build, operate and maintain the line for 30 years. The revised contract, set to run until 2056, is for $9.3 billion, a 66% increase.

The beginning of service has been delayed to 2026.

Officials have blamed time-consuming lawsuits and increased materials and labor costs, among other factors, for the delays and added expense.

Pollack told lawmakers that the state made considerable progress since taking over day-to-day oversight of the project, particularly with design, permit-acquisition and utility relocation. Rail cars are being produced at a factory in Elmira, New York. “We have not taken our foot off the gas to deliver this project,” he said.

Pollack said that MTS — a conglomerate of two firms with large-project experience, Dragados and OHL — has moved some of its top people from a Long Island Railroad project to Maryland to work on the Purple Line.

The state’s efforts to get the Purple Line back on track come as Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) pushes to get a signed agreement with Acclerate Maryland Partners, a consortium that has a contract to design — and hopes to build — variably priced toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270. He is set to leave office in 11 months.

MDOT has proposed using the state’s public-private partnership (or P3) law, which was approved to facilitate the Purple Line, to build the controversial toll lanes in Montgomery County.

After the hearing, subcommittee chair Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) said he is concerned that the agency has yet to absorb the lessons of the Purple Line’s 2020 meltdown.

“I’m surprised that MDOT has learned no lessons that if feels it can apply to other contracts,” he said in an interview. “It can’t be the case that there’s nothing contractually or regulatorily that shouldn’t be done differently.”

When Korman asked MTA officials during the hearing to discuss the lessons learned, they demurred, saying they did not want to speak for the State Highway Administration.

“I think we now have the right team in place,” said MTA administrator Holly Arnold. “And (we) have put in place the right procedures to ensure that we’re going to deliver a successful project over the next four-and-a-half years.”