Board OKs plan to build Purple Line with private partner

The Board of Public Works gave its blessing Wednesday to an O'Malley administration plan to contract with a private sector partner to build, operate and help finance a $2.2 billion light rail line in the Washington suburbs.

The board action clears the way for the Maryland Department of Transportation to move forward on the 16-mile Purple Line from New Carrollton to Bethesda as a so-called public-private partnership. The General Assembly approved legislation this year encouraging the state to use such agreements, known as P3s, to finance large infrastructure projects.

With the 3-0 authorization vote, the department plans to identify qualified vendors and draw up a bid solicitation. It hopes to bring a contract back to the board for final approval in late 2014. Under the proposal, the state would own the land and the line itself but would lease it to a concessionaire for 35 years -- five for construction and 30 for operations.

Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. said the approval of the plan for the Washington suburban line does not mean it is being given a higher priority than Baltimore's Red Line. He said the Red Line, which would run from Woodlawn to Canton, is seen as a candidate for a partial public-private partnership in which a private company would provide the train equipment and operate the line but not build. Smith said the difference between the projects is that the Red Line involves a significant amount of tunneling, which he described as highly specialized construction work.

The Red Line plan calls for one tunnel under downtown, Little Italy and Fells Point and another under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore.

Gov. Martin O'Malley noted that the Purple Line plan approved Wednesday calls for protections for labor, saying it would be contrary to Maryland's values for the project to pay substandard wages.

"Our drive to invest in public-private partnerships has everything to do with the dignity of work," O'Malley said.

Smith said that while there will be no explicit requirement that the concessionaire use union labor, the sate will give preference to bidders with a so-called "labor peace agreement" in place. Smith said such an agreement would protect workers' rights to vote on union representation. He noted that representatives of organized labor did not show up to oppose the plan.

The Purple Line would be Maryland's largest public-private partnership deal so far, eclipsing the Maryland Port Administration's deal with PortsAmerica for the expansion of the Seagirt Marine Terminal and the Maryland Transportation Authority's contract with Areas USA to rebuild and operate two travel plazas on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore.

The discussion of the project ended on a congratulatory note as Comptroller Peter Franchot, who had been at odds with O'Malley for most of the seven years they've served together, praised his fellow Democrat for his administration's achievement in putting the deal together.

"This is an enormous feather in the cap of your administration," said the comptroller, who has noticeably eased up his criticism of O'Malley since giving up his own gubernatorial ambitions late last year.

Franchot punctuated his salute by presenting O'Malley with one of the gold-colored comptroller medallions he's been presenting to high-achieving individuals around the state -- a tradition adapted from the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein's practice of giving out souvenir coins to one and all.

The governor appeared to  enjoy the moment.

"You really caught me coinless, so I owe you a beer," he told Franchot.





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