Purple Line among O’Malley announcements Monday

WASHINGTON – Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will make a major transportation announcement in Bethesda on Monday, reporting a big step forward on the Purple Line and announcing funding for several road and rail projects for Montgomery County.

Sources tell WTOP O’Malley will announce that the Federal Transit Administration has issued a “Record of Decision” approving the Purple Line. The ROD is a public document stating that the project meets all the environmental requirements to receive federal funding. Baltimore’s Red Line received a ROD in February, putting both projects on the fast track toward getting construction money.

“There are a lot of federal regulations that need to be met, but this announcement would be a huge step for the Purple Line and make it more likely construction will begin in 2015 and be completed by 2020,” says Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy group that prefers transit projects over road-widening to improve congestion.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile light-rail line that would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton, offering an east-west connection between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties that’s been a top priority of each jurisdiction for several years. The total cost is projected to be about $2.15 billion and will likely require a combination of federal, state and private dollars.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Jim Smith recently told WTOP that his agency is actively working on a public-private partnership similar to one struck between Virginia and Transurban-Fluor to build the Interstate 495 and Interstate 95 High-Occupancy Toll Lanes.

Supporters believe the Purple Line will save valuable time for people using mass transit between Bethesda and Silver Spring compared to Metro’s Red Line, which requires passengers to go into D.C. and back into Montgomery County. It could also save time for passengers going to New Carrollton without having to transfer on Metro from the Red to the Orange Line.

But Blynn says she believes O’Malley needs to spend more money on the Purple Line in order for it to be completed by the start of the next decade.

“We’re thrilled to see that the governor has pledged $280 million towards the Purple Line. Unfortunately, that’s a fraction of what’s needed to open the line by 2020 as scheduled,” she says.

“Because that project is the No. 1 priority for both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, we believe that we should see guaranteed funding for that project before we’re spreading around funding towards major interchange and highway projects instead.”

However, O’Malley will almost certainly announce funding for several such road projects on Monday. Among the top contenders include four projects along state routes 28 and 198 between U.S. 29 and Georgia Avenue. Plans include:

  • Widen MD 198 to four lanes from U.S. 29 to Old Columbia Pike ($31 million)
  • Widen MD 28/198 to four lanes from Old Columbia Pike to Layhill Road ($183 million)
  • Widen MD 28 to four lanes from Layhill Road to Georgia Avenue ($135 million)
  • Build a grade-separated interchange at Georgia Avenue at MD 28 ($142 million)

“The ICC (Intercounty Connector), which cost $2.6 billion, is still not being utilized to its full potential, and to invest another half-billion dollars in interchanges and widenings right next to it just seems like a huge waste of public funds,” says Blynn.

But the Maryland Transportation Authority released a study in June showing the ICC saves drivers up to 25 minutes and has cut traffic on 28 and 198 by 5 to 10 percent.

“Clearly the ICC is working. People are saving time on their commutes and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, people using the alternative east-west roads are also seeing traffic get a little better,” MdTA Acting Executive Secretary Bruce Gartner said in June.

Other road projects could include adding interchanges on U.S. 29 at Fairland Road and Musgrove Road. Interchanges allow traffic lights to be removed at intersections and provide a raised off-ramp to allow drivers to exit.

O’Malley also could announce funding to improve MARC service on the Brunswick Line, moving toward the long-term goal of adding two-way, all-day service that includes mid-days, nights and weekends. The Maryland Transit Administration released a Growth & Investment Plan in 2007 aimed at expanding MARC service and capacity by 2035.

But O’Malley is unlikely to announce money toward grand projects like studying HOT Lanes on I-270 or on the Capital Beltway between the American Legion Bridge and the I-270 spur. State Transportation Secretary Jim Smith has told WTOP that HOT Lanes will not be considered between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in the new transportation package.

Virginia already has HOT Lanes on the Capital Beltway from Springfield to Tysons Corner and is constructing HOT Lanes from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Turkeycock Run in Alexandria.

Some are concerned that all these projects are being considered without public meetings. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority recently approved funding for 32 road and rail projects after several open houses and public hearings in June and July.

“Gov. O’Malley and his administration have been announcing transportation projects throughout the summer. But it’s very unclear what influences those decisions,” says Blynn. “We would love to see more opportunity for the public to weigh in before major decisions are made about how billions of dollars of taxpayer money are being spent.”

Smith tells WTOP that Maryland does a good job on public outreach.

“It’s not the governor and the transportation department making decisions on what projects are being undertaken. It’s from the grassroots up. It’s the local jurisdictions telling us what they need,” he says.

Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson adds that the agency does exhaustive public outreach through road shows each fall. She adds that these decisions have come after many years of talking to Marylanders about what they want and need to improve their commutes.

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