Officials Break Ground on Long-Awaited Purple Line Project; Construction Immediately Starts

Governor uses excavator to knock down a building


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Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao shortly after signing the federal grant agreement for the Purple Line project. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Updated - 1:20 p.m. - After more than two decades of planning and debate, Gov. Larry Hogan and other officials broke ground on Purple Line light-rail construction Monday morning.

The event in the New Carollton area featured hundreds of supporters and local officials who have fought for the controversial project in various ways.

Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao participated in a ceremonial signing of the project’s federal full funding grant agreement. The signed grant will enable the state to access the $900 million in federal funds proposed for the project—including $325 million already appropriated for it.

During the ceremony, Hogan promised that construction would start right away--and it did. After the speakers were done, Hogan got in an excavator and used it to tear down a building to make way for what will become a Purple Line operations center. Construction is also expected to start right away along other parts of the route.

The 16.2-mile rail line is project to be completed in 2022. It will stretch along an east-west route from Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County and include 21 stations—10 in Montgomery and 11 in Prince George’s.

Hogan described the project as the largest public-private partnership ever undertaken in the United States.

"This multi-billion dollar infrastructure project is a big win for the state of Maryland," Hogan said. "It's a shining example of what can be accomplished when our federal, state, county and private sector partners all work together."

Chao said it will create 52,000 direct and indirect jobs and noted that Hogan lobbied her early and often to secure the federal funding for the project.

"This project is well on its way to transforming public transit in suburban Maryland," Chao said. "Public Private Partnerships are relatively new in the United States, but they hold great potential to help rebuild and revitalize our aging infrastructure because we do not have the money for every project that needs to be done in this country."

The groundbreaking marks somewhat of an end to the legal delays over the light-rail line. The court case brought by two Town of Chevy Chase residents and Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail prevented the federal agreement from being signed last August after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the project’s federal approval. Earlier this year, Leon ordered a new environmental analysis to determine how Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues would affect Purple Line ridership.

The state appealed his rulings to the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The appeals court has already reinstated the project’s federal approval, which allowed the state to secure the grant agreement and move forward with construction.

The court has set an expedited scheduled to determine whether the new analysis based on Metro’s issues is needed. It’s expected to rule on the issue as soon as October.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn both said they believe the state is on strong legal ground to prevail in the case.

"I believed all along, even in the worst of the challenges, I thought the project was going to move forward," Leggett said. "There are too many merits on the side for going forward with this. It took a little longer, it may cost a little more because of that, but this is the right thing for our region and I'm very, very happy with the outcome.

"It's hard for me to believe that we'll be faced with anything but temporary challenges here and there," Leggett added. "Ultimately, this project is moving forward."

Rahn told Hogan during the ceremony: "The Purple Line is going to be your legacy to Maryland."

The crowd that gathered to watch the Purple Line groundbreaking and grant agreement signing Monday morning. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Officials estimate the Purple Line will cost $2 billion to construct and $5.6 billion over the 36-year contract with the state’s private team of finance and construction companies Purple Line Transit Partners. The team is responsible for building, operating and maintaining the light-rail line over the next three decades.

The light-rail line is expected to have more than 50,000 daily riders by 2040. Once completed, it will connect work centers in the two counties with residential communities along the route. It will also connect the two ends of the horseshoe-shaped Red Line to give transit riders a new option to get from Bethesda to Silver Spring without having to pass through downtown D.C.

Rahn said the state hopes to complete construction by 2022.

The line is designed to give people in southern Maryland an alternative to traveling on often-congested roadways such as the Capital Beltway and East West Highway. It’s also a key part of the long-term economic development plans for the two counties where it’s being built. Montgomery County has rewritten zoning plans such as in the Chevy Chase Lake and Lyttonsville areas where new Purple Line stations are planned to allow for sizable new mixed-use developments.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer first pitched a transit project on the former CSX rail right-of-way in southern Montgomery County in 1989 and it was further developed by Gov. Parris Glendening. In the mid-2000s, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich studied whether to turn it into a bus route. After beating Ehrlich in 2006, Gov. Martin O’Malley fought for the light-rail line and budgeted funds for it during his administration.

Since then, the line has overcome opposition from Columbia Country Club and the Town of Chevy Chase. The light-rail line will run through the club and next to the town along the current site of the Georgetown Branch Trail.

"We made it," Senator Chris Van Hollen said at the groundbreaking. "It's been like a long-distance relay run with one administration after another passing the baton to the next."

The trains are scheduled to travel at 7.5-minute intervals and will mostly run in dedicated lanes. For 1.2 miles along Wayne Avenue, Paint Branch Parkway and Ellin Road in the Silver Spring area, the trains will travel in mixed traffic.

Montgomery County budgeted $204 million to fund the project and three related projects—the south entrance elevators to the Bethesda Metro station, a rebuilt Capital Crescent Trail along the line and the Silver Spring Green Trail The new 12-foot wide paved Capital Crescent Trail is planned to extend from Elm Street in Bethesda to Silver Spring. Purple Line Transit Partners will build it.

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