Purple Line rendering via MTA

State transportation officials sought Thursday evening to reassure Montgomery County residents that recent cost savings to the planned Purple Line would affect neither the environment nor the quality of service along the 16-mile light rail line.

A list of more than 40 cost savings measures—totaling about $215 million, or nearly 9 percent of the previously estimated cost of the Purple Line—was published earlier this summer, and was among the conditions set forth by Gov. Larry Hogan in June for moving ahead with the project.

Addressing a crowded meeting at the Silver Spring Civic Center, Maryland Transit Administration official Michael Madden declared, “I want to make clear that, when we are talking about cost-saving measures, they do not equate in the scope of the project. The benefits [and] environmental impacts of the project all remain the same.”

Added Madden, “All along, our goal was not only to make sure that the project was a little more cost effective, but that the Purple Line would still provide the level of service it was intended to do.”

The Purple Line, now slated to begin operation in 2021, will extend from Bethesda east through Silver Spring to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, with nearly a quarter of 21 station stops located in and around the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

For their part, Montgomery County officials signaled they were not concerned about the impact of the cost reductions. “I believe it does not significantly affect the quality of service the Purple Line will provide,” Al Roshdieh, acting director of the county’s Department of Transportation, told the gathering.

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But some local communities remain concerned about the impact of some of the cost-cutting efforts, and the majority of time at Thursday’s gathering was devoted to an informal open house—providing an opportunity for residents to question MTA officials on a one-on-one basis.

Officials of the Town of Chevy Chase, long a center of opposition to the Purple Line, recently expressed concern about a couple of the cost-cutting measures. One would eliminate a grassy track bed in favor of a less expensive gravel rail bed, prompting fears of increased noise and vibration; another would lower the height of sound barriers along the Purple Line route, which runs along the Capital Crescent Trail adjacent to the town.

But outright opposition to the Purple Line in the Chevy Chase area continues to ebb following Hogan’s decision to move ahead with the project. In the wake of a vote by the town’s  council last week to focus its efforts on mitigation of the project’s impacts rather than outright opposition, a state legislator whose district includes the town Friday announced his backing for the rail line.

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“I support the Purple Line…[It] will create jobs, re-energize our business community, and enhance our county’s reputation as an environmental leader,” Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Kensington, said in a press release. He added, “With full funding nearly secure and shovels hitting the ground [next year], my support provides me a seat at the table to fight on behalf of my constituents from across Montgomery County. Our best Purple Line is one that includes direct input from affected communities.”

Waldstreicher represents District 18, which extends from Chevy Chase to Silver Spring. While one member of the District 18 legislative delegation, veteran Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, has been a long-time Purple Line supporter, other representatives of the district have viewed the project in recent years with attitudes ranging from skepticism to outright opposition.

But the two remaining members of the District 18 delegation—Sen. Richard Madaleno and Del. Al Carr, both D-Kensington—declined Friday to join Waldstreicher in supporting the project, although Carr said that his focus, too, would be on addressing constituent concerns. “My job is to make sure their voices are heard—and, if it’s built, it’s built in the best way possible to resolve community concerns,” Carr said.

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Madaleno, while saying “I respect Del. Waldstreicher’s careful consideration of this project at this juncture in its development,” showed no sign of backing away from his long-time role as an outspoken skeptic of the Purple Line.

“This is going to be the most expensive procurement in the history of the state of Maryland, with  potentially the longest contract ever signed by the state of Maryland,” Madaleno, vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said in an interview.  “So there is still a long way to go about what the final proposal from the contractors going to look like, what it is going to include—and how it is going to be affordable.”

Madaleno was referring to a 35-year contract the state plans to sign in early 2016 with a consortium of private firms that will build and operate the Purple Line. Proposals from four such consortiums—referred to as “concessionaires”—are due Nov. 17, with a decision on the winning bidder to be made in January or February. “We expect to start construction by the end of 2016,” Madden said, adding, “we anticipate the Purple Line to be up and running by 2021.”

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This represents a slippage from a year ago, when construction was expected to be underway by the summer of 2015, with operations beginning at the end of 2020. But Hogan, who was critical of the Purple Line during his successful campaign for governor, put the project on hold upon taking office in January. After a six-month review, Hogan gave the green light to the rail line at the end of June, contingent on implementation of the cost savings outlined at Thursday’s meeting—as well as increased financial contributions from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Among the more significant savings was a decision to purchase fewer rail cars upfront, allowing as well for reduced capital expenditures for maintenance and storage facilities. As a result, trains will run every 7.5 minutes rather than every 6 minutes when the Purple Line begins operation.

“That’s still pretty good service,” Madden asserted.

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State officials were reluctant to put a current price tag on the project, saying that would be determined by the bids submitted in November. But estimates a year ago, while former Gov. Martin O’Malley was in office, put the cost of constructing the Purple Line at almost $2.45 billion. Subtracting the $215 million in cost reductions arising from the review ordered by Hogan, it appears the project cost now stands at around $2.24 billion.

While Hogan boasted in June of reducing the state’s upfront share of the project to $168 million from a figure once estimated to be as high as $700 million, Madaleno charged this will increase Purple Line costs in the long run. “The governor has greatly increased the amount of debt that is going to be associated with this project— draining the upfront cash out of this project will increase the amount of money that will need to be borrowed and paid back,” he contended.

All told, it appears the state share of the cost will come to as much as $385 million, with the $168 million contribution coming on top of $217 million that MTA documents say the state has already spent for preliminary work on the project. At Hogan’s insistence, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have increased their combined share of the project to $300 million, up from a previous figure of $240 million.

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Montgomery’s share alone is now $160 million, with county officials earlier this summer agreeing to provide another $40 million five years into the project on top of a prior commitment of $120 million. The latter includes $60 million for the county constructing a south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, connecting the Red and Purple lines.

With the federal government tentatively agreeing to provide $900 million, the remaining $600 million to $700 million apparently needed for the project’s overall construction cost will come from financing raised by the winning concessionaire. This will be repaid through so-called availability payments made by the state to the concessionaire, with some of it coming from fare revenues—but most of it comprised of tax dollars.

State and county officials said they are now focused on nailing down a so-called full funding agreement for $900 million from the federal government, the final condition set by Hogan for going ahead with the Purple Line. Madden expressed confidence that this would happen next spring, while noting that the federal Department of Transportation already has agreed to such an agreement in principle.

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