DALLAS – Maryland's $5.6 billion Purple Line light rail project could get underway in 2017 if a federal judge agrees with new passenger estimates from federal and state transit agencies that show slumping ridership on Washington's Metrorail won't cripple the project.
The project is currently in limbo after Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered a delay in August until supplemental ridership projections for the Purple Line were developed.
The state plans to finance, build, and operate the proposed 16-mile light rail system as a public-private partnership under a 30-year concession agreement signed in April. Construction of the line and its 21 stations is expected to cost $2 billion and take six years to complete.
Leon halted the project in August after plaintiffs in an environmental lawsuit contended that the Federal Transit Administration erred when it did not consider the likelihood that declining ridership on the breakdown-plagued Metrorail system due to extensive maintenance problems could result in fewer passengers using the Purple Line.
Leon amended his order in late November to remove his earlier stipulation that the project's completed Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should be revised in light of the ridership concerns, which could delay the project for many months. Leon instead asked the FTA and the Maryland Transit Administration to determine whether ridership problems on the Metrorail system operated by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority were significant enough to require a new environmental assessment.
Attorneys for the FTA and the MTA said in the latest court filings that passenger loads on the Purple Line would be sufficient even if none of the rail system's riders used the Metrorail system to begin or complete their trips.
Daily ridership by 2040 would average 50,000 passengers without any transfers from Metrorail, down from initial estimates of 69,300 per day if the WMATA system were fully functional, the agencies said.
Ridership on the Purple Line could range from average 66,766 passengers per day if Metrorail usage grew by 40% from 2018 to 2040 or 62,768 per day if Metrorail loads stabilize but do not increase, the FTA and MTA said.
The lower estimates would still be sufficient to justify the construction of the Purple Line as a reliable and necessary transportation link across the Maryland suburbs of Washington, the MTA said.
"There is no plausible basis for finding that reduced ridership (even if it were to occur) would create a seriously different picture of the environmental impacts of the Purple Line," the agency said in its Dec. 18 submission.
Project director Charles Lattuca told the court that the halt is costing the state $13 million per month and could jeopardize the $400 million that Maryland has invested in the Purple Line.
Plaintiffs in the case, which include the environmental group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, have until early January to respond to the FTA and MTA motion seeking an end to the delay.
About 27% of Purple Line riders are expected to use the Metro system for part of their journey. Passenger loads on Metro have fallen 12% since 2010 due to WMATA's difficulties in keeping the system functional due to numerous maintenance issues and equipment breakdowns, as well as delays and shutdowns under a safety surge program to fix problems.
Maryland signed a contract in April with Purple Line Transit Partners, an international consortium of Fluor Enterprises, Meridiam Infrastructure Purple Line, and Star America Fund, to finance, build, and operate the Purple Line and operate it for 30 years with availability payments of $150 million per year.
Financing will include a $900 million FTA grant, an $873 million federal low-interest loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, $138 million from the private partners, and $313 million of private activity bonds issued in June by the Maryland Economic Development Corp.