The idea was conceived in the early 1980s as what one local politician referred to as “a Toonerville Trolley, a very modest little thing that just went back and forth all day long” on an old railroad bed between Bethesda and Silver Spring.
It umorphed into a far grander plan for a 16-mile, 21-station light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, connecting communities and creating economic opportunities.
Along the way, it was slowed by lawsuits filed by unhappy residents and organizations in its path, as well as by both interparty and intraparty political differences over its cost and effectiveness.
The final chapter in the tortuous saga of the Purple Line has yet to be written: A judge this month ruled that a private consortium that had contracted to build and operate the line could walk away from it. It left state transportation officials with the choice of finding another contractor or finishing the project themselves.
Meanwhile, the unhappy end to the public-private partnership (P3) arrangement under which the Purple Line was being built has cast a shadow over an even larger proposed P3 in the region — the widening of I-495 and I-270.
Following is a detailed timeline of the ups and downs of the Purple Line over more than one-third of a century:
1983 — CSX Transportation proposes abandoning the Georgetown Branch freight rail line running between Georgetown and Silver Spring.
1988 — Montgomery County purchases an approximately 7-mile section of the Georgetown Branch right-of-way from the District line to Silver Spring for $10 million. The portion from the D.C. line to Bethesda is set aside for a multiuse trail, while the county Department of Transportation receives jurisdiction over the section east of Bethesda for construction of trail and transitway.
1990 — The Montgomery County Planning Board approves an amendment to the Georgetown Branch Master Plan for construction of both a trail and Bethesda-to-Silver Spring “trolley,” escalating the battle over use of the former railroad right-of-way.
1993 — The Maryland State Highway Administration undertakes the Capital Beltway High Occupancy Vehicle Lane Study. It was later renamed the Capital Beltway Corridor Transportation Study, reflecting the view that mass transit alternatives were needed to address Beltway congestion.
2001 — Gov. Parris Glendening endorses the “Inner Purple Line,” a light-rail system from Bethesda to New Carrollton that is estimated to cost $1.2 billion. It puts him at odds with a fellow Democrat, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who favors a $4 billion, heavy-rail “Outer Purple Line” outside the Beltway from North Bethesda through Grosvenor, Wheaton and White Oak.
2002 — The name “Purple Line” is formally adopted in the Capital Beltway/Purple Line Study conducted by the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transit Administration. The study identifies the “Inner Purple Line” between Bethesda and New Carrollton as a priority transit corridor, while ruling out use of heavy-rail and monorail technologies due to cost and impact.
2007 — The “Purple Line” name is officially restored after the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich sought to dub the route the “Bi-County Transitway,” reflecting Ehrlich’s interest in exploring use of bus rapid transit alternatives.
August 2009 — A year after the release of a draft environmental impact statement that assesses a half-dozen light-rail and bus rapid transit options, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley comes out in favor of the Purple Line “medium investment light-rail alternative” at a projected cost of $1.52 billion.
May 2013 — Shortly after the Maryland General Assembly approves a gasoline tax increase yielding additional $4.4 billion over a six-year period, O’Malley releases a list of projects to be funded by the increase — including the Purple Line.
August 2013 — Appearing in Bethesda, O’Malley says he wants a public-private partnership — a so-called P3 — to build and operate Purple Line. He also announces a $400 million state commitment for construction of the line, on top of a previous $280 million for design work and property acquisition.
September 2013 — The final environmental study is released, predicting that the line will attract more than 74,000 riders daily by 2040.
March 2014 — The Federal Transit Administration includes the Purple Line as one of seven “new start” projects nationwide, including $100 million in the federal government’s 2015 fiscal year budget as a down payment on what Maryland hopes will be $900 million in federal aid.
August 2014 — Two Chevy Chase residents, in partnership with the advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, file a federal lawsuit alleging that the Purple Line would do environmental harm and possibly risk the habitat of an endangered amphipod.
November 2014 — Republican Larry Hogan upsets pro-Purple Line Democrat Anthony Brown in the gubernatorial election. While on the campaign trail, Hogan repeatedly said that the project’s cost was too expensive.
November 2014 — The Federal Transit Administration estimates the Purple Line costs at $2.45 billion to build and $55 million per year to operate.
December 2014 — Hogan postpones a decision on choosing one of four private companies’ bids to build the Purple Line. That, in turn, pushes back construction of the project, which had been targeted to start in mid-2015, with the line transporting passengers in late 2020.
January 2015 — Immediately after being sworn in as governor, Hogan announces he’ll take time to review the Purple Line before making a decision on whether to move forward with the project, alter it or kill it.
June 2015 — Hogan announces a 16-mile long Purple Line with 21 station stops will move forward, after talks identify $300 million in construction cost reductions. Hogan also insists on shifting some of the cost from the state to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett agrees to add $40 million; Montgomery’s commitment to the project ultimately reaches $223 million.
March 2016 — Purple Line Transit Partners — consisting of New York-based investment firms Meridiam and Star America, as well as Fluor Enterprises, a Texas-based construction firm — is selected from among four competing consortia as the private “concessionaire” for the project. Updated estimates put the construction cost at $1.99 billion.
April 2016 — The state Board of Public Works awards Purple Line Transit Partners a 36-year, $5.6 billion contract — with annual payments of nearly $150 million — to maintain and operate, as well as design and build the light-rail line.
August 2016 — Ruling in a lawsuit brought by Purple Line opponents, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon orders an additional environmental impact study based on Metro’s subway ridership decline — and the latter’s effect on Purple Line ridership estimates. The Maryland Department of Transportation says it will appeal the decision, which vacates federal government funding approval of the Purple Line and halts most construction activities.
July 2017 — After nearly a year of legal maneuvering, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stays Leon’s ruling, allowing construction work on the Purple Line to proceed. Five months later, the appellate court reverses the lower court decision; it finds the Federal Transit Administration and the state Department of Transportation properly examined the impact of Metro’s ridership on the Purple Line and that further study is not needed.
August 2017 — Ground is finally broken on Purple Line construction in a ceremony attended by Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who signs the agreement committing $900 million in federal dollars. The Capital Crescent Trail is closed to biking and hiking a few days later to allow construction activities, bringing protests from area residents over a lack of advance notice.
January 2018 — Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn says the projected spring 2022 opening of Purple Line has been pushed back until later that year.
January 2019 — Citing delays it says have added $215 million to the cost of construction, Purple Line Transit Partners — in a report to state Department of Transportation obtained by The Washington Post — says the project won’t be up and running until the first quarter of 2023. The consortium later increases the estimated cost overruns to $275 million.
March 2019 — U.S. District Court Judge Leon rejects a second lawsuit brought by Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and two Chevy Chase residents — ruling that the plaintiffs had not proven “injury” as Metro riders despite their allegation that the Purple Line was taking resources away from the region’s aging subway system.
March 2019 — Construction work on the Purple Line is 10 percent complete, with design work 85 percent finished, project managers say during a Montgomery County Council hearing.
September 2019 — Citing the slower pace of construction work around heavily urbanized areas such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, project managers say that some sections of the Purple Line will begin operating in late 2022 in Prince George’s County — but not Montgomery County. The latest estimate for full service on the line is April 2023.
January 2020 — Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich omits a new pedestrian/bike tunnel underneath Wisconsin Avenue — designed to link the Capital Crescent Trail and downtown Bethesda — from his capital improvements program, citing “fiscal constraints.” The Montgomery County Council later votes to add $54.9 million to build the new tunnel — designed to replace a tunnel to be used by the Purple Line — to the county’s six-year CIP.
April 2020 — U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar dismisses the third and final in a series of lawsuits brought by Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and several Chevy Chase residents — this one contending that federal authorities improperly permitted Purple Line construction crews to discharge dredge and fill into streams. The attorney for the plaintiffs files a notice of appeal a month later.
April 2020 — Purple Line Transit Partners says it will need an additional five months — and $187.7 million — to build a “crash wall” required by CSX Transportation between Lyttonsville and Silver Spring, where the Purple Line will run adjacent to CSX trains. All told, the project has accumulated potential delays totaling nearly 17 months and cost overruns in excess of $500 million — 25 percent over the construction budget, The Washington Post reports.
May 2020 — The partnership of three construction firms building the Purple Line — Fluor Enterprises, Lane Construction and Traylor Bros. — says in a letter that it will stop work on the project because the Maryland Transit Administration has declined to cover added costs. The partnership contends those costs are from “issues that are out of its control, not of its making.” State officials later tell the Montgomery County Council the project is about 30 percent complete.
June 2020 — Purple Line Transit Partners informs the Maryland Transit Administration that the public-private partnership will be terminated within 60 days without a new agreement from the state. A day later, the consortium serves notice that it will lay off 700 employees working on the project if there is no resolution of the matter by an August deadline.
September 2020 — Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater tells a state legislative hearing that the Purple Line will be completed even if the private consortium abandons it, vowing, “The only option we are not considering is not completing the project.” Maryland Transit Administration officials later say during a court hearing that this would mean diverting funds for other state transits in the near term, with the Purple Line completion delayed at least another year.
September 2020 — Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Geller rules that Purple Line Transit Partners, under the terms of its contact with the state, can walk away from the project. The private consortium says the state has refused to pay more than $750 million in additional costs that stem from two-and-a-half years of delays that are the fault of the state — an assertion Maryland officials disputed.
This is an updated version of a timeline that first appeared in Bethesda Magazine’s November-December 2014 issue, accompanying “All Aboard,” an in-depth look at the first three decades of the Purple Line project.