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Amid a rancorous contract dispute that threatens to halt work on the Purple Line, a judge in Baltimore has ordered the company in charge of the project to remain on the job.
Maryland Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey M. Geller issued the order on Monday at the request of the Maryland Transit Administration. The Maryland Department of Transportation announced Geller’s order on Tuesday.
Under the terms of his temporary restraining order, Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP), the consortium building the 16-mile rail line under a public-private partnership with the state, is barred from abandoning work until Sept. 14.
PLTP and its primary subcontractor, Purple Line Transit Constructors (PLTC), have been in a protracted dispute with the state over $755 million in cost overruns. They have threatened to bolt if an agreement is not reached.
On Friday the consortium submitted a letter to MDOT, MTA’s parent agency, saying the state must take over managing the contractors’ subcontracts by Monday. If the state failed to do so, it would run the risk the construction team would begin terminating those agreements.
The rail line, which would connect New Carrollton and Bethesda, is a long-sought transportation priority in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Work began in 2017. Before the dispute arose the first phase of the line was scheduled to open in late 2022, but that now may be delayed.
Officials from the two counties and project advocates said the restraining order issued by the judge buys time for negotiations to continue. But it does nothing to resolve the bitter dispute that led the teams to threaten to walk off the job in the middle of construction.
“The underlying issues are still there,” said Prince George’s County Council Chairman Todd M. Turner (D). “Hopefully we can find a way to get through these issues so we can move forward with the project.”
“I’m glad the work will continue for now, but this is a messy situation,” said Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment.
“If this is a trial separation and reconciliation is possible, we need to get there quickly,” he added. “If it’s a divorce, we need to get to that end game quickly, too, and figure out how to move on with this project as promptly and responsibly as possible.”
Construction crews have made significant progress on the project, but the work has had a heavy impact on many neighborhoods. If no resolution is found and contractors walk away, MDOT will be forced to assume a leadership role in the remainder of the project — or find a company willing to do so. Under either scenario, the added impact on inner-Beltway residents and commuters would be considerable.
“While this ruling does not resolve the larger issue between Maryland and the concessionaire, this ruling mitigates concerns about a slowdown in work and a loss of jobs due to the dispute,” said Greg Sanders, a transit advocate who is active with the group Purple Line Now.
“We have been heartened by the progress has been made even as public statements have escalated on both sides,” he added. “The best outcome remains a fair negotiated agreement. We hope that the concessionaire and Maryland will use this stay to keep making progress on construction while finally resolving these longstanding disputes.”
Emails to PLTP and PLTC were not returned on Tuesday.
In seeking a court order keeping the firms on the job, MDOT argued that their threats to abandon the project midstream were premature, because the dispute over who bears responsibility for cost overruns did not meet the “extended delay” statute in the project’s contract.
The Purple Line project is being closely watched, not only because of its importance to the traffic-choked Washington, D.C., suburbs but because the Hogan administration is pushing hard to use the state’s public-private partnership law to widen the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) and I-270 and to rebuild the American Legion Bridge between Montgomery County and Fairfax County, Va.