Maryland presses for federal support in building two light-rail systems

Backed by an affirming legislative session and soon to be flush with transportation money, state officials went to Washington on Monday to assure the administration that Maryland has both the means and the will to build two light rail systems.

"Timing is everything," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, after a meeting with U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and the deputy administrator for the Federal Transit Administration. "Maryland has the resources to move forward. We're at a critical point."

State officials hope to persuade the two federal agencies to share with Maryland the cost of two huge public works projects: the $2.58 billion Red Line that would run 14 miles from Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Campus; and the $2.15 billion Purple Line that would run 16 miles from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George's County.

"The Red Line will go a long way in connecting neighborhoods and communities within Baltimore via public transit," Brown said. "Both the Red and the Purple [lines] give Maryland and the federal government the opportunity to showcase the benefits of public transit."

Porcari, who used to be the state's transportation secretary before joining the Obama administration, called the meeting "productive" and said he would work closely with the state as the projects move forward.

For starters, Maryland officials would like to latch onto some of the $500 million contained in the Obama administration's 2014 budget for what are called New Start mass transit projects and apply it to engineering and design costs.

"The competition is fierce. You need to fight for not only your place in line but also to be ready to take the next step," said Leif A. Dormsjo, the state's acting deputy transportation secretary, who also attended the meeting.

State lawmakers did two things last session to bolster Maryland's standing.

First, they approved gas tax increases that will infuse the transportation trust fund with $4.4 billion over the next six years. Without that money, the transit projects "were at a standstill," Brown said. "They would have stalled and with it the $100 million-plus the state has invested in each one of them."

Also, the General Assembly approved legislation that spells out the framework for public-private partnerships to pay for infrastructure improvements and other projects. Almost immediately after passage, the Maryland Transit Administration sent out an invitation to the private sector for written suggestions on how to build the two light rail lines.

After the May 8 deadline, the MTA will hold separate meetings to discuss each light rail line with industry and transportation experts. Brown and Dormsjo said that public-private partnerships could be used to pay for a portion of the projects, such as the stations, construction of one of the light-rail lines, or both.

" 'Possibility' is the operational word. That's why we issued a request for information," Brown said. "We're going to the private sector saying, 'Tell us what's possible. Give us some information about delivering these projects.' "

MTA has set 2015 as a construction start date for both lines, with completion in late 2020 or 2021.

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