In the latest effort to prod a skeptical Gov.-elect Larry Hogan to move ahead with construction of the Purple Line, a newly formed business coalition – including a dozen prominent area real estate and development firms—late Friday sent Hogan a letter urging him not to cancel or delay the light rail project.
The group, dubbing itself the Economic Partners of the Purple Line, is seeking a meeting with Hogan “to discuss this project’s overwhelming economic benefits to our businesses, our local communities, and the state of Maryland,” according to the letter. The primary organizer behind the effort is The Chevy Chase Land Company, whose property along Connecticut Avenue – which the firm plans to redevelop – would be the location of one of the 21 Purple Line stops.
Meanwhile, an informal coalition of about 15 community associations – representing neighborhoods along the proposed Purple Line route from Silver Spring area west to the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area—also plan to seek a meeting with Hogan to renew their concerns about the impact of the project. “There’s no doubt that since the election, several community associations along the [route] have pretty much come out and said, ‘Hey, let’s rethink this thing’,” said Phil MacWilliams, president of the Coquelin Run Civic Association in the eastern portion of Chevy Chase.
The upset victory of Hogan, who criticized the cost and impact of the Purple Line during this year’s primary and general election campaigns, has called into question the future of a transit project on which construction had been set to begin in 2015. Since the Nov. 4 election, Purple Line proponents have sought to emphasize what they see as the economic development benefits of the project, hoping to appeal to Hogan’s focus during the campaign on improving the state’s business climate and creating jobs.
“We are eager to work with you to ensure the project is delivered cost-effectively, and that the opportunity for transit-oriented development around the stations is maximized. However, halting this project at the eleventh hour would further undermine business confidence in Maryland—and we know this is exactly the opposite of your intention,” the Economic Partners of the Purple Line told Hogan in their letter. The $2.45 billion project is dependent on between $360 million and $760 million in state funding to move forward, in addition to financing from the federal government, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and a private partnership.
Besides The Chevy Chase Land Company, the signers of the letter include a number of well-known development firms based in the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area or which have major holdings either there or in the greater Washington area. Among them: the Donohoe Companies, Carr Properties, B.F. Saul Company, StonebridgeCarras, Federal Realty Investment Trust and the JBG Companies.
The business coalition’s letter, while not finalized until Friday, has been in the works for several weeks, with members of the group meeting on Dec. 9. That was three days before Hogan’s recent speech before the Committee for Montgomery, during which he made no mention of the Purple Line.
However, Hogan’s comments to Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney – published a couple of days after Hogan’s Committee for Montgomery speech – have buoyed opponents of the project, while being taken by several Purple Line proponents as a clear sign that the governor-elect intends to delay or cancel the plan.
“My priority is building roads,” Hogan told the Post. “The priorities are out of whack. Less than 10 percent of the people use mass transit. Most people in the state want the roads fixed.”
In what appeared to be an effort to respond to such arguments, the business coalition closed its letter by telling Hogan, “The existing road network inside Maryland’s Capital Beltway is essentially ‘built out,’ so even if we wished to expand it significantly we would be unable to do so—which means that our innermost suburbs cannot continue to grow or compete with Virginia unless we expand our transit capacity.”
And, in a late addition to an earlier draft of the letter, the business coalition pointedly declared, “We are one state, and the continued prosperity and economic vitality of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties benefit all of Maryland.” In his recent comments to the Post, Hogan said, “We are going to probably pay attention to Western Maryland and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, where they’ve felt completely left out.”
Among those lending their names to the business coalition’s letter are a couple of a couple of developers with ties to members of the Hogan transition team.
The signers include Bruce Lee, president of the Silver Spring-based Lee Development Group (the chairman of the Lee Development Group’s board, commentator/columnist Blair Lee IV, is on Hogan’s transition team, as is former County Executive Doug Duncan.) Greenbelt-based developer Thomas Bozzuto, who has been a leading fundraiser in Duncan’s past runs for office, signed the letter – as did Richard Parsons, a former Duncan campaign manager who is also a former president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Other Purple Line proponents also are seeking to turn up the heat on Hogan prior to his taking office on Jan. 21. “The Purple Line is in real, immediate danger of being cancelled by the incoming Hogan administration,” read a blast email late last week sponsored by several pro-Purple Line groups, including Purple Line NOW and the Action Committee for Transit. “We understand the Hogan transition team is hearing from transit opponents, who are asking the governor-elect to cancel the project once he takes office. We need to counter those negative voices with an avalanche of emails!”
Meanwhile, McWilliams said that the sentiment about the project among the community groups and associations that comprise the Coalition of Purple Line Neighborhoods is “definitely not uniform” but added, “You go all across the [Purple Line] alignment, and even into Silver Spring – and if there’s not outright objection, there’s a lot of skepticism and concern. The entire alignment is just not that popular.”
The Coquelin Run Civic Association headed by MacWilliams recently wrote to Hogan requesting “an objective and thorough review of the project before deciding whether it should proceed.” While stopping short of asking that the project be scrapped, the Dec, 11 letter contended that, since Gov. Martin O’Malley gave the go-ahead to the plan in 2009, “the cost of the project has risen substantially; there remains considerable debate regarding its ridership projections…and the final environmental impact statement, although lacking in many respects, revealed the impacts to the environment and residents and businesses along the route to be far greater than what was portrayed in the [draft environmental impact statement released in 2008].”
In addition, a letter from the East Bethesda Citizens Association, also dated Dec. 11, “strongly” encouraged Hogan to “reconsider this project” for similar reasons.
“We are encouraged that the [governor-elect] will take a hard look at this project to see whether it really makes economic sense for the area, particularly when there are cheaper alternatives that we know could be up running and running sooner,” said Town of Chevy Chase Vice Mayor Pat Burda, whose municipality has been a long-time opponent of the current Purple Line proposal. At last count, the town has paid a law firm nearly $275,000 to lobby state and local officials on the issue. Town officials also are seeking a meeting with Hogan.
Asked whether she considered Hogan’s recent comments in the Post as a signal that the project is dead as currently proposed, Burda replied: “I saw it as the most positive sign we’ve heard yet that the project is going to be looked at very closely. I would say, ‘yes, I’m encouraged’.”