State figuring out who will take over Purple Line project
Transportation department will have long-term construction plan in 4 to 6 months
This story was updated at 10:52 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2020, to include a statement from a PLTP spokesman.
State officials are figuring out who will complete the Purple Line light-rail project after a judge ordered that the current contractors can abandon it.
Thursday’s ruling, issued by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Geller, leaves the state with two choices: complete construction on its own or hire another contractor.
State officials said Tuesday that they haven’t decided which option to take for the 16-mile, 21-station project.
The Purple Line, which is set to stretch from Bethesda to New Carrollton, has been under a public-private partnership between the Maryland Transit Administration and Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), a consortium contracted to construct and operate the project.
But the future of the light rail has been uncertain since disputes began to pile up over project delays and cost overruns.
Negotiations took a turn when the Purple Line Transit Constructors (PLTC), the design-build contractors under PLTP, notified PLTP on May 1 that it would leave the job because of the disputes.
MTA filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court in August. A temporary restraining order was granted to keep workers on the job through Sept. 14.
Now, the state is working with the concessionaire on transitioning the work to the state to keep the project from being abandoned until the next steps can be figured out.
Kevin Quinn, administrator of MTA, told the Montgomery County Council at a briefing on Tuesday that officials expect to have a short-term plan of which subcontractors will stay on the job, how to increase staff to manage the contracts, and what parts of the project will be delayed because of the transition.
The question of who will finish building the line won’t be figured out until the next four to six months, he said.
Quinn did not say if and when the contractors would abandon the project.
“While we disagree with the concessionaire’s assertions, we’re not going to let their claims and things distract us from getting the job done,” he said. “That is our focus and that is our commitment.”
Quinn said it’s too early to say exactly what the long-term plan will be for the project, but a number of contractors have contacted the state with interest in taking over the project.
“In the short term, we’re focused on keeping construction moving forward on this project into the winter and really coming out with a solid long-term process underway,” he said. “I want to be honest — I’m not going to sit here and say there won’t be stumbling blocks along the way, or make commitments that the state is going to be able to maintain that same level of activity happening that PLTC had going on in the next few weeks and months.”
John Undeland, a spokesman for PLTP, wrote in a statement to Bethesda Beat Tuesday evening that the group remains open to a settlement and mediation.
“Leaving the project is the last thing we want to do,” he wrote. “However, after years of negotiations with MTA on delay issues that we had no role in creating and for which the state has provided no meaningful relief, we felt we had no choice but to pursue termination. The combined effect of the disputed issues totals more than 900 days of delay.
“It is simply unreasonable and economically unviable for any contractor to absorb such profound delays without meaningful relief.”
Matt Pollack, the Purple Line project director for MTA, said the state, PLTP and PLTC are having daily meetings to coordinate the transition.
Over the next 30 days, the state will work on design completion, utility relocation, wall construction and other tasks.
The state is coordinating with subcontractors to see who will stay on the job, as well as creating backup plans for any that decide to leave, Pollack said.
This requires potentially more staff members to go from managing one contract to managing more than 100 contracts, he said.
Christopher Conklin, director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, said the county is talking with the state about the county’s financial stake in the project.
“We are delaying some of those payments to make sure that the county’s investment in this is occurring at the time that the work is being completed and that we’re not ahead of that process,” he said.
Montgomery County has contributed $223 million for the project — $54 million directly toward the Purple Line and $169 million towards county-funded, supporting projects, including the Capital Crescent Trail, Silver Spring Green Trail and a new entrance to the Bethesda Metrorail Red Line station.
As of late June, the county was billed $59 million for the county-funded projects, but no bills had come for any direct amount for Purple Line costs.
Several County Council members told the state officials that they were disappointed in the disputes and the judge’s ruling.
Council Member Nancy Navarro said the situation is “disheartening” for the county.
“It is a very sore sight to have to witness so much that started to happen and now things are just not occurring,” she said. “Of course, we stand ready to partner with you and work with you, but as some of my colleagues have said, I think [Gov. Larry Hogan] needs to put forth some clear statements about how he is going to own this major issue and how we’re going to come out the other side.”
Council Member Andrew Friedson said the lawsuit ruling was “not kind at all” to the state.
“I am hoping that the future bids are not kind to the concessionaire because what is absolutely unacceptable here is a firm that committed to doing work, to delivering a project, is abandoning its obligations,” he said. “Finding loopholes in contracts in a deal that could have been stronger is fine, but commitments made should be commitments kept.”
Friedson said the project has taken away pedestrian access for residents — a short-term pain for a long-term gain.
“I have yet to meet a resident who feels very strongly about who builds this,” he said. “Purple Line needs to be built.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.