News & Politics

The Purple Line Will Happen, But It’ll Cost the Suburbs More

The Maryland government will only put in $168 million on the $2.45 billion project.

Rendering courtesy Maryland Department of Transportation.

Governor Larry Hogan surprised suburban transit advocates Thursday in announcing that his administration will go forward with the planned Purple Line light rail between New Carrollton and Bethesda, but that does not mean advocates for the project can breath easily. While Hogan’s election last November sparked fears that the Annapolis Republican would make good on his campaign’s skepticism of the project and kill it outright, he threw a new twist into the long-anticipated railway’s fate by drastically reducing the state government’s contribution.

Maryland’s coffers will only put in $168 million on the 16-mile Purple Line instead of a possible $700 million. The project, which was first proposed in 1994 as an expansion of Metro, is estimated to cost $2.45 billion to build. The Federal Transit Administration is in for $900 million, leaving the remainder of the costs to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Each county previously pledged to spend $110 million on the project, with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett later saying he could potentially contribute another $50 million. But that still leaves the Purple Line nearly $1 billion short of its total funding.

Hogan, who on Monday disclosed he is being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, made the Purple Line announcement during a press conference touting $1.97 billion in road and bridge construction projects across the state, including the widening of Interstate 270 and other arterial highways. But committing additional funds to roadway projects—for which the benefitting communities will not have to pay extra—leaves less for mass transit. While the Purple Line got a reprieve, Hogan canceled a $2.9 billion planned Red Line in Baltimore.

While the Purple Line is still in planning stages, the cuts today will impact its final design. Instead of six-minute headways when it opens, trains will run every seven-and-a-half minutes; there may only be enough money for one rail yard; and the project might lose a wall protecting nearby communities from the rumble of trains. Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn says the Purple Line, as originally envisioned, was “a Cadillac project, not a Chevy project.”

He talked a lot about cost effectiveness, but a lot of the road projects on the list may not be that beneficial to economic development as the Purple Line,” says David Alpert, editor of the pro-development website Greater Greater Washington. “It is unfair that he didn’t say, ‘I reached out to Garrett County to say that if you want this road you’re going to come up with your own tax money.’ He sees it as saying the state money should go to roads and not transit.”

The number of vehicle miles traveled per capital in Maryland peaked in 2005 at 10,888, according to a 2013 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The Maryland Department of Transportation under former Governor Martin O’Malley estimated that the Purple Line would average 74,000 riders daily by 2040. By comparision, the Intercounty Connector highway, which runs between Gaithersburg and Laurel, was found to carry an average of 50,000 cars per day, well below initial projections.

Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased mass-transit spending, is relieved to see the Purple Line survive, but chafes that its presumed state funding is being mosly hacked off.

“It’s very much a double standard, especially in light of the governor’s decision on the Red Line to spend all this money on roads and bridges,” she says.

Even with funding more uncertain than ever, though, Purple Line backers are relieved the project did not share the Baltimore Red Line’s fate.

If he wanted to kill it, he could have said ‘I’m killing it,'” says Alpert.

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.