Gov. Wes Moore (D) vowed Wednesday to get a multibillion light rail line on track while minimizing new costs.
The three-member Board of Public Works approved yet another extension and an additional $148 million in payments to Purple Line Transit Partners for cost overruns associated with delays in construction.
“We are firmly committed, firmly committed to making sure we’re getting this critical project back on track and also minimizing future delays and costs increases because they have been real,” said Moore. “We are firmly committed to making sure that in this time, in this moment, in this administration we’re going to get this right. While I share the frustration, and frankly, the disappointment of my colleagues on this board, our partners in government, business and civic leaders, most importantly, I share the frustration of our residents. And I share the frustration of our taxpayers, people who have been waiting and have deserved better that this item before the board today.”
Moore said the cost overruns were well-documented and “predate our administration.”
The panel, which also includes Comptroller Brooke Lierman (D) and Treasurer Dereck Davis (D) voted unanimously to approve the contract modification.
Lierman said she was “only reluctantly” supporting the changes.
“At this point, our hands are really tied,” she said, comparing the delays and additional costs to an iceberg.
“It’s just the tip, because all the problems that have happened before are underwater, and we don’t see them right now,” said Lierman, who then blamed former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for the problems.
“It’s really years of failures by the previous administration that applies to this point,” said Lierman. “This is a critical transportation project that is years behind schedule and nearly $4 billion over budget. And at this point, it’s been a bad deal for Maryland taxpayers, from the earliest days when the previous governor insisted on restructuring the deal for the supposed purpose of saving money. That has been a penny-wise and pound-foolish decision.”
Lierman, striking an optimistic tone, said: “I think we’re all done with additional delays and more modifications for the Purple Line.”
The 16.2 mile east-west line connects the New Carrollton Metro Station in Prince George’s County and the Bethesda Metro Station in Montgomery County and includes 21 stations.
The project — proposed under former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) — broke ground in 2016, a year after Hogan was sworn into office. Hogan canceled a similar project — Baltimore’s Red Line — calling it “a boondoggle.”
Davis did not speak about the Purple Line during the meeting. After, he told Maryland Matters that the Purple Line project “has been a boondoggle. The cost overruns and even the new timelines that we’ve gotten, they’ve been qualified. It very well could go beyond the spring 2027 deadlines. We have to do better.”
When it was launched, the Purple Line was expected to cost nearly $5.6 billion and open in 2022.
Almost immediately the project was beset with lawsuits, a dispute with a concessionaire, then a pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflationary pressures.
“This is important because it checks off a whole collection of boxes,” said Moore. “And so our administration will complete this project. But we will complete it in a fiscally responsible manner. While we’re also ensuring that we’re being fair and transparent with our project partners. And we will hold ourselves and our partners accountable for completing this project with a focus on transparency.”
Moore’s first term ends in January 2027.
The current opening date for the Purple Line is spring of 2027. The cost, including the payment approved by the Board of Public Works, is now $9.4 billion over the more than three-decade contract period.
Work progresses on the project, which is now estimated to be more than 50% complete. Construction along the line from New Carrollton to Bethesda includes 60 active construction sites with more than 700 workers.
And while work drags on with the Purple Line, Moore has announced the state is moving forward with resurrecting the Red Line Project.
Few details are known about the renewed east-west transit line, including the costs. Also unknown is how much federal aid will be available for the project and if the state will again use a public-private partnership to build it as was used with the Purple Line.
The original Red Line project canceled by Hogan was also expected to use a public-private partnership, or P3, agreement.
Lierman said Purple Line “is a textbook case of why long-term transportation P3s can be so dangerous to taxpayers.”
“At the end of the day, there’s a disagreement, or if the numbers no longer work for the private partner, it can just walk away,” said Lierman. “We’re still here, right? The taxpayers are still here, all construction cones in their yards are still here. And there’s nothing the state can do to stop it. And it’s just the taxpayers and residents who suffer.”
“There are lots of lessons to be learned here, certainly,” he said “Public private partnerships — we have to be cognizant of those. Not just the benefits. You hear a lot about the benefits of these kinds of things, but never the potential drawbacks and setbacks. We don’t hear that. I just think the planning could be better going forward. If we go forward to Red Line, better planning.”
Board approves settlement in First Amendment case
The board unanimously approved a $65,000 payment with Maryland Lawyers for the Arts, Inc. to cover legal fees in a case in which two journalists and three advocacy groups successfully sued for the right to use audio recordings of court proceedings.
In 2019, Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods and a coalition of criminal justice advocacy organizations — Open Justice Baltimore, Baltimore Action Legal Team and Life After Release — sued for the right to publish the audio.
Soderberg and Woods planned to use recordings of court proceedings in a documentary about the Baltimore City Police Gun Trace Task Force.
The advocacy groups wanted to use the recordings in criminal justice education programs.
Audio of court recordings is available to the public for a fee, but the judiciary bars airing the recordings in public. The reporters and advocacy groups challenged the rule under the First Amendment to avoid a contempt charge.
A federal judge in Baltimore threw out the case in 2020. An appeals court sent the case back on a First Amendment challenge.
The lower court judge then ruled in favor of the plaintiffs saying that the state court system could not sanction the press for publishing the recordings that the courts provided to the public.
The Board of Public Works approved the payment without discussion.