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State pledges another $400M toward building of Purple Line

BETHESDA — Two much-anticipated transit projects in Montgomery County account for the bulk of a $650 million commitment made by state officials on Monday to pay for projects they say could decongest the roadways in Maryland’s most populous county.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown speaks at Monday’s transportation funding announcement in Bethesda, following Gov. Martin O’Malley, to his left.

With $280 million already pledged to complete land acquisition and design of the Purple Line, a $2.2 billion light rail that would connect New Carrollton to a Metro station here, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced to a crowd of several hundred supporters and protestors that the state had also set aside $400 million to build the 16-mile project.

“We’re showing just how serious we are in delivering the Purple Line now,” said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who spoke after O’Malley.

The state has also pledged $100 million for the $545 million Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus rapid transit system that would run between Rockville and just south of Clarksburg, marking the most significant allocation yet for the 15-mile bus line, which has lagged behind the more expensive Purple Line and light rail Red Line in Baltimore.

Officials are depending on much of Purple Line’s remaining cost to be picked up by the Federal Transit Administration though its New Starts program. A private builder and operator would also contribute some construction money, as could local governments, officials said.

In choosing to build the project as part of a public-private partnership, the state plans to offer a private company a 30- to 40-year lease, during which time the private partner would pay for maintenance and operation of Purple Line in exchange for annual payments from the state.

A request for qualifications will be issued this fall, a Maryland Department of Transportation official said, and a formal request for proposals could be issued in the spring, with construction beginning in 2015.

Other major projects announced Monday include $125 million for a new interchange along Interstate 270 at Watkins Mill Road, $25 million to relocate Route 97 around historic Brookeville and $85 million to help operate Montgomery County’s local bus line.

Most attention, however, was paid to Purple Line, a project more than 20 years in the making that officials believe will address a major transit inadequacy in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which have no east-west rail line.

With signs reading “Save the trail” — a nod to the Capital Crescent Trail, along which several thousand trees would be removed to make way for the Purple Line — and “Purple Line Greener Future” popping out of the massive crowd, officials detailed the transit line’s potential benefits, occasionally being interrupted by chants of “save the trail” and “build it now.”

The announcement was a continuation of O’Malley’s summer tour around the state, in which he has described the transportation projects that will be paid for by an unpopular gas tax increase that was approved by a somewhat reluctant General Assembly this year.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve stopped making the investments necessary in order to create and to build and rebuild the transportation infrastructure that we need as a people,” O’Malley said. “We need it in order to strengthen and grow our middle class, we need it in order to create jobs and facilitate commerce, and the failure to act, the failure to make those better decisions, had a huge cost.

“It cost us all in terms of time we could have spent with our families that we lost. It cost us in terms of time that we could have spent at work that instead our employers lost.”

Some, however, were not eager on Monday afternoon to respond to O’Malley’s applause lines.

Rolf Sinclair, a retired government employee who lives in Chevy Chase, said the Purple Line would do little to reduce traffic congestion in the county, because some — including the Chevy Chase Land Co. — were planning to develop land around the light rail stations, adding more density to the area.

The project is also too expensive, Sinclair said, adding that an expansion of the bus system would get people from place to place without billions of dollars of work.

“It’s being built for the sake of building a light rail,” he said. “It’s a dated, rather useless piece of supposed mass transportation.”