Purple Line clears legal step

A week after a panel of federal judges granted a stay, giving the paused Purple Line project new life, the County Council gave the go-ahead to the state transit administration to start work on the project.

On July 24, the Council approved a franchise agreement to allow the Maryland Transit Administration to build, operate and maintain the Purple Line in County owned right-of-ways. The unanimous agreement by the Council clears a legal step by giving the MTA the franchise agreement and authority to start working on the project on County-owned land.

The County will not charge the MTA for the new 70-year franchise agreement, citing “public benefits” for the project. Most of the County-owned land that the franchise agreement covers is in the Georgetown Branch area, a strip of land between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

“This franchise provides for the non-exclusive occupation of the right-of-way for the Purple Line light rail line project for a term of seventy (70) years,” said County Executive Ike Leggett in a memo to Council President Roger Berliner (D-1). “Due to the public benefits of this transit project, the County is not charging a franchise fee.”

The Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail project that will connect Bethesda Metro Station to New Carrollton, with stops in-between at places such as Silver Spring and College Park along the way.

The project received bipartisan support in the state capital with lawmakers seeing the light rail project as way to facilitate business and travel between Montgomery and Price George’s counties. However, after the state approved in April 2016 the $5.6 billion contract in with Purple Line Transit Partners, the public-private partnership that will construct the Purple Line, federal judge Richard Leon temporarily stopped the Purple Line’s construction in November, saying the project needed updated Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership numbers to justify the construction. The judge’s action has caused several months of delays for the project, increasing the total cost of construction.

A federal three-judge panel recently granted a stay on the previous ruling, allowing construction of the Purple Line to commence.

“I think this is great news,” said Council member Hans Riemer (D-at large), of the three-judge panel decision. “This means we wrested this from the grip of this judge that made a really bad decision.”

MTA faces a few more hurdles before constructing the Purple Line.

One example is the state is still waiting for $900 million in federal funding before it can begin construction on the Purple Line.

In June, MTA Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn halted spending on parts of the project, executing actions such as a hiring freeze on construction staff by Purple Line Transit Partners and asking the company to suspend procurements of “nonessential” materials and equipment. He also ordered MTA to stop hiring additional Purple Line oversight staff temporarily and to stop more money from going into county design review.



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