Pur­ple Line at risk of stalling

Loss of state fund­ing could af­fect fed­eral aid

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - MORE TAX REV­ENUE NEEDED, MD. SAYS BY KATHER­INE SHAVER

Last week’s news that with­out ad­di­tional tax rev­enue Mary­land would halt de­sign work on a light-rail line be­tween Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties has re­newed fears that the pro­posed Pur­ple Line might never make it off the draw­ing board.

In the past decade, more than $100 mil­lion has been spent on plan­ning the line, but if those ef­forts are put on hold be­cause of a short­age of state money, Mary­land’s bid for at least $1 bil­lion in crit­i­cal — and com­pet­i­tive — fed­eral con­struc­tion aid could be jeop­ar­dized.

Un­less the state in­creases rev­enue for trans­porta­tion, “I think the project would need to be rethought,” said Tom Farasy, board chair­man of the Pur­ple Rail Al­liance, a coali­tion of Prince Ge­orge’s busi­ness lead­ers.

“We’re in the [fed­eral fund­ing] pipe­line,” Farasy said. “At some point, the project has to show how it will get funded. If noth­ing hap­pens this year, it’s a sig­nal. It’s not a very good sig­nal.”

To win fed­eral money, the Mary­land Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion must prove that the state can pay its half of the 16-mile line’s con­struc­tion costs, now es­ti­mated at $2.15 bil­lion. Mary­land tran­sit of­fi­cials have said the state can’t af­ford that with­out ad­di­tional tax rev­enue to fund high­way and tran­sit con­struc­tion.

Pur­ple Line ad­vo­cates say they have rea­son to be op­ti­mistic, even though Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley (D) was un­suc­cess­ful last year when he pro­posed rais­ing trans­porta­tion funds by ap­ply­ing the state’s

6 per­cent sales tax to gaso­line. The Gen­eral As­sem­bly hasn’t in­creased the state’s 23.5-cent-per­gal­lon gas tax — which is sep­a­rate from the gen­eral sales tax — since 1992.

Most notably, sup­port for a Pur­ple Line has re­cently grown more vo­cal and or­ga­nized, par­tic­u­larly among Prince Ge­orge’s busi­ness lead­ers. The light-rail line would run be­tween Bethesda and New Car­roll­ton, with 21 sta­tions in be­tween.

It prom­ises to be a tough fight. Of Mary­land vot­ers re­cently, 73 per­cent said they would op­pose a 10-cent in­crease in the state’s gas tax, ac­cord­ing to a poll by Gon­za­les Re­search & Mar­ket- ing Strate­gies. In a Jan­uary 2012 Washington Post poll, 72 per­cent op­posed a 10-cent in­crease, although op­po­si­tion dropped to 50 per­cent for a 5-cent in­crease. Miller’s pro­posal

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has in­tro­duced a bill that would add a 3 per­cent sales tax to gaso­line and al­low county of­fi­cials to tack on as much as 5 cents a gal­lon more to fund road and tran­sit projects. But Miller told re­porters this week that “noth­ing is go­ing to hap­pen un­less the gov­er­nor leads on this is­sue.”

O’Mal­ley hasn’t in­tro­duced a trans­porta­tion tax pro­posal this year, and he has yet to ap­point a per­ma­nent state trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary to re­place Bev­er­ley Swaim-Sta­ley, who left the post last sum­mer. The new sec­re­tary would be ex­pected to lead the charge for an O’Mal­ley trans­porta­tion tax plan.

If no tax plan is ap­proved this year, get­ting one passed in 2014, when Mary­land law­mak­ers are up for re­elec­tion, is con­sid­ered highly un­likely. That would push back the pur­suit of fed­eral fund­ing for a Pur­ple Line by at least two years. By then, how­ever, the leg­is­la­tion that au­tho­rizes fed­eral money for new tran­sit con­struc­tion will have ex­pired, adding a new layer of un­cer­tainty.

“If we don’t have the money, [fed­eral money] will go to the next project in line,” said state Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince Ge­orge’s), who chairs the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions trans­porta­tion sub­com­mit­tee.

By 2015, Gaines said, state sup­port for a Pur­ple Line also could lose sig­nif­i­cant trac­tion. That in­cludes years of work­ing to per­suade col­leagues from ru­ral ar­eas to sup­port higher taxes, in part, to build multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tran­sit sys­tems that their con­stituents would rarely use. Re­build­ing a case with new law­mak­ers would take time, she said.

“Their ques­tion will be, ‘If you needed the money two years ago, why didn’t you get the rev­enue then?’ ” Gaines said.

Jack Ca­ha­lan, a spokesman for the Mary­land De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion, said the state, since 2002, has spent $105.8 mil­lion on pre­lim­i­nary en­gi­neer­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies for a Pur­ple Line. It has spent an ad­di­tional $123.5 mil­lion on plan­ning for a new 14-mile light-rail Red Line in Baltimore. Dead­line threat

Mary­land’s re­cently re­leased cap­i­tal bud­get plan for trans­porta­tion would cut off fund­ing to both projects af­ter June 30 if no tax in­crease was ap­proved by then. That would leave both projects on hold be­fore reach­ing fi­nal de­sign.

Work to be­gin pre­lim­i­nary en­gi­neer­ing on a 15-mile ded­i­cated busway in the heav­ily con­gested In­ter­state 270 cor­ri­dor — a project known as the Cor­ri­dor Cities Tran­sit­way — also would be put on hold if a tax pro­posal failed, ac­cord­ing to the cap­i­tal bud­get plan.

Work done on the projects so far could be re­sus­ci­tated once state money is avail­able, plan­ners said, though some stud­ies would need to be up­dated af­ter three years. Even so, state of­fi­cials say, they’re con­cerned that the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion will have turned its at­ten­tion to dozens of other projects na­tion­wide com­pet­ing for rel­a­tively scarce fi­nan­cial aid.

“Mo­men­tum is vi­tally im­por­tant,” said Leif Dorm­sjo, Mary­land’s act­ing deputy trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary. “The costs as­so­ci­ated with th­ese projects, the po­lit­i­cal sup­port, the com­plex­ity of bring­ing peo­ple to­gether — it all re­quires steady and con­cen­trated ef­fort.”

Fed­eral of­fi­cials would not com­ment specif­i­cally on Mary­land’s tran­sit projects. But one FTA of­fi­cial said any “lack of progress” in ob­tain­ing “firm fund­ing com­mit­ments” from state or lo­cal gov­ern­ments “could be one fac­tor that con­trib­utes to a project fall­ing be­hind oth­ers.” The of­fi­cial said FTA pol­icy pro­hib­ited his be­ing quoted by name.

When — or if — a Pur­ple Line is built will help shape the Mary­land sub­urbs, as Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s plan­ners have be­gun to fac­tor it into longterm plans.

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials are try­ing to ac­com­mo­date pop­u­la­tion growth with­out in­creas­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion by al­low­ing taller build­ings to be built near ligh­trail sta­tions. Prince Ge­orge’s of­fi­cials have said they are hope­ful that Pur­ple Line sta­tions would en­cour­age eco­nomic devel­op­ment and help re­ju­ve­nate older in­side-the-Belt­way com­mu­ni­ties, such as Riverdale Park and Col­lege Park.

But busi­ness lead­ers say de­vel­op­ers won’t risk that kind of in­vest­ment un­til fund­ing is cer­tain.

“I’m not say­ing the money would have to start flow­ing next Mon­day,” said Farasy, the Prince Ge­orge’s Pur­ple Line ad­vo­cate, who de­vel­ops apart­ment build­ings. “But peo­ple need to know it’s coming so they can plan on it.”

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