Purple Line Work Continues as Officials Wait To See Whether Judge Will Reconsider Controversial Decision

Purple Line Work Continues as Officials Wait To See Whether Judge Will Reconsider Controversial Decision

State official: 'If something like this had to happen, and it did, right now is not a bad time'

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A rendering showing the proposed look of the Purple Line

Maryland Transit Administration

The state official overseeing the Purple Line light-rail project said Thursday night the federal government and state hope to receive a reconsidered decision in the next few weeks from a federal judge who vacated the project’s approval in a controversial lawsuit.

“If something like this had to happen, and it did, right now is not a bad time for it to happen because many of the activities we’re doing are not really affected by having a Record of Decision or not having a Record of Decision,” said Charles Lattuca, executive director for transit development and delivery at the Maryland Transit Administration.

He said about 130 employees of Purple Line Transit Partners—the team contracted to design, build, maintain and operate the 16.2 mile light-rail line to run from Bethesda to New Carrollton—are currently taking soil borings and conducting engineering and design work for the project at a facility in Riverdale Park in Prince George’s County.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the Purple Line’s Record of Decision in an August order that cited Metro’s recent woes during an ongoing lawsuit brought by two Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail. Leon also called for a new environmental assessment to be conducted by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA.)

PURPLE LINE NOW

Charles Lattuca, right, at a previous forum about the Purple Line

?Lattuca said that without the Record of Decision, the workers can’t conduct any activity that’s not reversible—such as demolition of a building.

“We don’t feel like the state is at a lot of risk at this time, so we are on schedule for our project from a design standpoint and we soon hope we’ll get to construction,” Lattuca said. He was not sure whether groundbreaking for the project will take place this winter, as was originally planned.

Lattuca spoke at an informational meeting in Bethesda sponsored by Purple Line Now, a local transit advocacy group. The meeting included a presentation by Brian Middleton, who oversaw the Denver Eagle public-private partnership project that this year completed construction of two commuter rail lines in the Denver metropolitan area.

Leon’s order created some doubt about the future of the Purple Line, which over the past year has received a wave of state approvals, because it jeopardized the approximately $900 million the federal government has planned to contribute to defray the costs of the $5.6 billion, 36-year contract with Purple Line Transit Partners.

Over the past two months the FTA, state and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have filed court documents asking the judge to reconsider his order. The FTA has made the case it should be responsible for deciding if another environmental assessment is necessary and that the judge should reinstate the Record of Decision so construction can proceed. The state argued that delaying construction on the project would cost an additional $13 million per month.

Last week, attorneys for Montgomery County filed a 32-page amicus brief in the case in support of the FTA and state, citing a bevy of negative impacts on the county if the project were to be delayed. The county said long-term transportation and land use objectives such as the revitalization of Silver Spring and the reduction of east-west traffic congestion inside the Beltway would be harmed. The attorneys also said stopping the project would prevent the economic benefits expected to result from the rail line such as the creation of nearly 4,000 construction jobs and increases in the value of properties surrounding the line.

“The impact on the long-term economic health of the communities along the Purple Line and the residents of these communities will be substantial,” the brief notes.

The proposed route of the Purple Line via Maryland Transit Administration (click to expand)

In its own 29-page brief, Prince George’s County presented similar arguments and also noted the rail line presents a link for low-income residents to get to jobs as well as an opportunity to grow the University of Maryland, which would be connected to Bethesda, Silver Spring and other destinations in the two counties via the Purple Line.

Also last week, the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case—Chevy Chase residents Christine Real de Azua and John Fitzgerald as well as the trail group—filed a response saying the counties’ briefs should not be considered because they weren’t filed in an appropriate amount of time.

Brian Middleton, at the podium, talks about the Denver Eagle rail project during a presentation in Bethesda Thursday night. Photo by Christine Scott/ Purple Line Now

The local discord over the major transportation project was juxtaposed Thursday night with Middleton’s presentation that highlighted how Denver was able to build its commuter projects within its budget and deliver it on time through a public-private partnership model similar to the one the state has created with Purple Line Transit Partners.

“We certainly didn’t have a lawsuit on this project,” Middleton said.

He noted that Denver area voters approved the project in a ballot initiative in 2004.

“Fifty-six percent of the people in the region voted to use their own [tax] money to build it,” Middleton said. “That helped.”

He said that during the construction phase, state and city officials overseeing the project enabled the private partner to make many of the design and construction decisions. Instead, the officials focused on making sure the private companies, known as the concessionaire, complied with the contract.

“The concessionaire has to do what he’s contracted to do,” Middleton said. “If he does all that, then he gets the full monthly payment. If he doesn’t, he can lose up to 25 percent of his monthly payment.”

Middleton said the contract arrangement forced the private companies to provide quality construction so that they don’t lose money operating and maintaining the train system over the approximately 30-year life of the contract. Lattuca noted Maryland has a similar arrangement with Purple Line Transit Partners, which will be paid in $149 million annual installments, provided it provides the contracted level of service.

Significant portions of the Denver Eagle project opened over the past year and Middleton said it has been well received—with ridership exceeding initial projections.

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