Since the departure of the previous builder, one of the most persistent and critical questions from the public has been when the Purple Line will open. Maryland Transit Administration was not comfortable providing estimates until a new builder was selected as that would be part of the competition and negotiation. In November, we learned that the new builder would be Maryland Transit Solutions, made up of the U.S. subsidiaries Dragados USA, Inc. (Dragados) and OHLA Group, Inc. (OHLA).
Yesterday, Maryland announced the new schedule -- opening day is to come in late 2026 (Shaver, K. “Purple Line Will Open Late.” Washington Post, 12 January 2021.) The new opening timeframe would be the date in which the entire line is set to open. As part of the competitive process for attracting a new builder, Maryland moved away from the plan to open the project in stages.
The cost of construction increases by $1.4 billion, bringing the total cost, including 30 years of operations, from $5.6 to $9.3 billion. The new contract will go to the Board of Public Works at the January 26 meeting for approval by Maryland’s governor, treasurer, and comptroller.
Purple Line NOW Board President Ralph Bennett reacted to the news by saying, “The delay that has resulted in pushing the project to 2026 along with the cost increases are a huge disappointment, but one influenced by economy-wide conditions.” In their transportation road show late last fall, Secretary Slater reported that pandemic disruptions, including material costs and supply chain challenges, as well as labor pool shortages have contributed to both cost and time increases.
Bennett emphasized that the fundamental strengths of the line remain. “It is filling the missing east-west connection that brings together four Metro branches and three MARC lines from Bethesda to New Carrollton. Its role as a jobs line, bringing an estimated $2.2 billion in annual growth to our region can be seen in developments occurring and planned throughout the corridor. The Purple Line will help address the mounting cost of transit-accessible housing, and its environmental benefits in taking 17,000 cars off the road have only grown more urgent. Finally, it will complete the Capital Crescent Trail extension between Bethesda and Silver Spring.”
Local officials noted the pain of the delay, but pointed to the criticality of completing the project to attain the benefits and end the disruption. This sentiment was echoed by Purple Line NOW Vice President Greg Sanders, “I think it’s safe to say Maryland wants more certainty and they are willing to pay a premium to get it.” Addressing the cost increases, Sanders continued, “The numbers are bigger than we’d like and it’s later than we’d like, but the key thing is getting to that opening day.”
Critically, as Maryland officials explained, key risks and sources of conflict are now behind the project. There were four causes of the delays that the builder raised in the $850 million dispute with Maryland: the costs added by the lawsuit inflicted delay, the pace of property acquisition, the freight company CSX demanding a separation wall for a portion of the right of way, and environmental permits. MDOT MTA Purple Line Project Manager Matthew Pollack told reporters that the State has resolved the design of the wall, has the permits in hand, and full “legal control” of all the needed properties.
In a recap of the status of the project earlier this week, Mr. Sanders cited the massive task of relocating utilities as another regular source of problems for infrastructure projects. Maryland used the downtime while searching for a new builder to take over the 150 contracts and has made significant progress, according to the State’s year end compilation, utility relocations are now 66 percent complete and design is 95 percent complete. Finally, Sanders notes, “A frivolous lawsuit cost the state precious time and by directly causing nearly a year of delay, managed to seed conflict and cost Maryland leverage in the original agreement. Vitally, the last of the suits have been dismissed and the higher courts have been consistent in finding them without merit.”
Purple Line NOW Treasurer Tina Slater noted one piece of good news that emerged last fall at the Maryland Transportation Roadshow, “As part of this new contract, Maryland is buying additional light rail trains. This was always planned, but with huge progress completed on the initial set of light rail cars, this was an opportunity to reduce headways at rush hour from the initial time of 7.5 minutes. This is one of the most important factors for the quality of transit and a practical demonstration that Maryland was looking for best value when bringing on a new builder. It will have been some 40 years from the initial idea of a trolley on the Georgetown Branch to the complete on the Purple Line, and it could have been completed much more cheaply without a series of unnecessary delays. However, what matters now is ending the disruption and gaining the benefits of the line, and that end is now in sight.”