By BRADY HOLT
BALTIMORE (April 20, 2010)—Returning former Gov. Robert Ehrlich to the state's highest elected office in November could spell trouble for the planned Purple Line, according to the Maryland Transit Administration planner who is supervising the project.
In an interview, the project's manager, Michael Madden, said planning for the Washington area's $1.5 billion light rail line has likely advanced far enough to avoid being axed outright—he expects to begin the $50 million preliminary engineering process by the end of this summer.
The Ehrlich administration delayed the project earlier this decade, calling for further studies, Madden said, while current Gov. Martin O'Malley has been more "supportive"—making a potential upset at the polls a bit worrisome.
"I mean, if the governor was lukewarm or not really supportive of the project, then I would worry, but under this current administration, that's not a problem," Madden said.
"I don't believe (Ehrlich) was nearly as supportive of the project as our current governor." Madden said, suggesting that delays and scale-backs could be possible under a second Ehrlich term.
The Purple Line had the backing of Gov. Parris Glendening, but the region's transportation focus was redirected toward the InterCounty Connector toll road when Ehrlich took office in 2003. The long-planned ICC—which faced stiff opposition for its environmental impact and the cost of the tolls—is now under construction.
"We just want to point out, we think reducing congestion is a top priority for Bob Ehrlich. In fact, we proved that with getting the ICC going," said Andy Barth, Ehrlich's press secretary, who at first said he was not personally familiar with the transit project. "The Purple Line must be among potential solutions that are considered, and we would absolutely do that."
Barth would not commit to an Ehrlich administration funding the Purple Line, however.
"We just have to consider the (financial) circumstances at the time," Barth said.
As planned, the Purple Line would be a dual-track light-rail line running 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carrollton in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, just inside the Capital Beltway.
The light rail line would connect the spokes of the region's Metrorail system, which radiate from the center of town and force commuters to go through Washington to get from one Maryland suburb to another.
The line could also spark redevelopment projects along its route, and local planners are examining sites in Langley Park and College Park for potential dense growth.
"It's a useful thing, frankly, because one of the Governor's main priorities is smart growth, transit-oriented development," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said. "But it takes a commitment in terms of upfront investment."
Ehrlich, however, delayed the Purple Line early in his administration by calling for further study and stating a preference for a lower-investment transitway of dedicated bus lanes instead of a light rail train system, Madden said.
Light rail is "seen as something that's more permanent, particularly from a development standpoint," Madden said, and is therefore worth the extra cost. A "bus rapid transit" Purple Line was estimated at half the price of light rail, but O'Malley selected the trains as his "preferred alternative" last year.
The outcome of November's election isn't the only factor in the Purple Line's fate, Madden said. The MTA will need a variety of state and federal approvals and to purchase some properties along the planned route.
Also, both the state and federal governments would need to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the project, but Madden said the funding remains on track.
"We have enough momentum now, and there's a lot of support. Certainly the Governor supports the project, and a lot of elected officials do," Madden said. "I think somehow they would try to find the money."
"I'm very optimistic that it will happen," Madden added. "Because it's my job to get it done."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.