News & Politics

The Purple Line Could Be the Biggest Casualty of Tuesday’s Maryland Election

Transit advocates worry Larry Hogan's election could mean doom for a much-needed suburban train.

Rendering courtesy Maryland Transit Connectors.

Larry Hogan has only been Maryland’s governor-elect for 18 hours, but his upset victory Tuesday night over Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown already has many folks in the suburban counties outside Washington in panic mode because a Hogan administration could spell doom for the long-anticipated Purple Line light rail project.

In the works for 13 years, the Purple Line is a much-needed transit route between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties as the Washington region continues to grow. Brown, a Prince George’s County native, pledged to support the $2.45 billion project if he was elected, but Hogan, an Annapolis land developer, did not run as a friend of mass transit. “We’re going to focus on building roads, and that’s something this administration has not done,” the Republican said in September, referring to Governor Martin O’Malley’s transportation policies. (The Intercounty Connector, a toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel, opened in 2011, at the start of O’Malley’s second term.)

Hogan backed off his roads-first transportation views a bit in October, but the Purple Line’s backers in the DC suburbs still woke up this morning fearing the worst.

“I really wasn’t believing this was going to happen,” says Tina Slater, an official with the Action Committee for Transit, a Montgomery County transit-advocacy group. “The last time we had a Republican governor the whole project got stalled.”

The idea of building a commuter railway between Montgomery and Prince George’s spawned in 2001 under then-Governor Parris Glendening. It stalled in 2002 after the election of Bob Erlich, but O’Malley’s administration rebooted the project. Four teams of development and engineering firms are currently preparing bids to build the route, with the state’s current transportation officials eyeing a late 2015 groundbreaking.

Hogan dodged a question about Purple Line funding at a press conference today, but it’s easy to see why Slater and her fellow suburban transit advocates are nervous. Maryland’s budget is submitted from the governor to the General Assembly in early January, but under the state’s “strong-executive” model, legislators can only subtract from the governor’s budget requests, not add in their own agenda items. In other words, if Hogan submits a budget next year that omits the Purple Line, it will be extremely difficult for Beltway-area legislators to revive it.

And unlike Hogan’s contest with Brown, the Purple Line is not a partisan issue among the locals it would serve. Businesses like it because mass transit historically encourages commercial development. Transit junkies and environmentalists like it because it adds a much-needed transportation option without putting more cars on the road. (The Sierra Club named it one of the 25 best transportation projects in the country in 2012.)

“The economic benefits of this are enormous, and [Hogan] claims to be interested in jobs,” says Ralph Bennett, a Silver Spring-based architect and the head of Purple Line Now, another pro-train community group. “I don’t think he falls into this camp of nihilist who denies capital projects. We have private commitments in the hundreds of millions of dollars. If he’s going to turn around and thumb his nose at people who have made big capital commitment, I don’t think he’ll be acting in the state of Maryland’s interest.”

The best gauge of how much the Purple Line could relieve the suburbs might be statistical projections of their future. Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have a combined population of 1.84 million today; by 2040, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments expects Prince George’s to be home to 995,300 people and Montgomery to 1,217,400, with hundreds of thousands of people commuting every day between the two counties and other neighboring jurisdictions.

“As the population grows, we’re going to have more cars on the road because the transportation options we have today will be the only options available,” Slater says in the event Hogan guts the Purple Line. Another four-year delay would almost certainly push that $2.45 billion price tag higher.

Bennett and Slater are trying to remain calm, but their outlooks today are far from positive.

“I don’t know whether to be optimistic or not,” says Bennett.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.