Thursday, January 17, 2008

Much Ado About Purple

There has been much talk about new Purple Line funding in press releases from pro-Purple Line groups. However, these claims rest on promises which may prove ephemeral to say the least. Specifically, don't get too excited about the much touted $100 million announced for the Purple Line.

If one examines the new proposed state transportation budget, one does not find new funding in either budget years 2008 and 2009. The new funding for the Purple Line, promised to (or demanded by) legislators in exchanged for support for slots or taxes during the special session, all occurs in budget years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

One might notice that these budget cycles will not commence during the current governor's (hopefully) first term. One might further notice that these budget years are all labeled (as is 2010): "PROJECTED CASH REQUIREMENTS FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY". In other words, these figures don't mean a heck of a lot.

One might finally notice that the numbers are very round: $18 million in 2011, $30 million in 2012, and $28 million in 2013, and total to an even rounder $100 million. Again, smacks of repaying a debt rather than a firm figure on the actual cost of this project. Even if the feds decide to fund it--still an open question--the State still hasn't made a serious commitment despite the recent frenzy of press releases.

Oddly, the Washington Post appeared to have missed this key point. Its budget article conflates its discussion of the $100 million into next year's budget. They shouldn't feel bad though. Legislators and the Transportation Secretary didn't highlight it either:

Lawmakers -- chanting "P-U-R-P-L-E! O'Malley!" -- applauded the allocation, saying that the eventual construction of the line will help cut traffic congestion in Washington's suburbs.

"We know that the Purple Line would be good for our environment, our economy and our quality of life," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery).

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari called the Purple Line the "transit beltway," connecting Montgomery and Prince George's. The $100 million to fund the next phase of the project will help Maryland procure federal dollars for it in the future, Porcari said.

Purple Line supporters still have to overcome several major hurdles: (1) convincing the State that this project deserves priority, (2) proving that the light-rail is more cost effective than other options, (3) convincing the feds to fund it, and (4) convincing Maryland to find the money to fund it. Despite the hoopla, I don't think that they are any closer than before the $100 million was announced.

It looks as if gaining federal funding may also be trickier than expected. The Silver Line to Dulles is facing unexpected difficulties according to the Washington Post despite the strong efforts by Virginia to accommodate federal requirements:
Officials on Capitol Hill, in Richmond and at the airports authority's headquarters have speculated in recent days about what the problem might be. Some say the FTA has long been skeptical of expensive rail projects; in recent years, it has more often championed bus rapid transit projects.
Still, Purple Line supporters are clearly fighting hard for the project and able to muster a fair amount of legislative clout even if they can't yet get the money. It also remains a crucial time for the proposed link as the numbers from the ridership study (though not the actual study) have been released and the environmental impact study is coming up soon.