For a construction industry starved for work during recent lean years, the prospect of getting a slice of the $2.6 billion Red Line light rail project was like a dinner bell.
Nearly 400 people, from contractors and investment bankers to engineering firms and rail-car makers, packed a forum at the Baltimore Convention Center on Monday to learn what kinds of opportunities might be available if the state makes the mass transit project a public-private partnership, or P3.
The Red Line and its sibling, the $2.2 billion Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, would be a heavy financial lift for the state, even with a 50 percent contribution by the federal government. So the O'Malley administration has been looking for alternative funding sources.
"This is not a definite P3," said Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in his opening remarks, noting that one of the light rail projects might be built using traditional financing and construction. But by using P3s for three to five infrastructure projects each year, he said, the state could free up money for other projects.
He acknowledged that passage this year of public-private partnership legislation and a gas tax increase that is expected to raise $4.4 billion over the next six years also raised the expectations of the public and private sector for quick action.
"It's our responsibility to look at all options of financing and delivering these projects," said Brown. "We want to explore every option and not take anything off the table. There may come a time where we realize, hey, one project works better as a traditional procurement rather than a P3, or visa versa. We're in steep learning mode right now."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave a more local sales pitch. The 14-mile Red Line will connect the city and the suburbs to create jobs, ease commutes and increase home prices, she said. The light rail line is projected to carry more than 50,000 riders daily between Woodlawn and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus, through downtown Baltimore.
"The Red Line will have the strength to improve neighborhoods," she said.
Afterward, Brown cautioned that it's too early to tell whether one of the light rail projects would be a better fit as a P3 and declined to estimate when a decision might be reached.
But clearly, that deadline is approaching if the state hopes to break ground on both lines in 2015, with openings after 2020. Red Line planning has cost the state $120 million so far. On Wednesday, Maryland Transit Administration officials will ask the Board of Public Works to approve $112.6 million more for continued engineering and architectural work. A similar funding request for the Purple Line is expected within the next month.
The Obama administration has made the two light rail lines high priorities, a designation Brown hopes will lead to a 50 percent contribution.
Donald Fry, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the interest of the business community bodes well for the project.
"The Red Line is poised to move forward. People sense there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Fry said. "Baltimore is hungry for more mass transit. The Red Line is critically important to build connections to the north-south lines we already have. This is an almost once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."