Political and business leaders and transit advocates in Maryland’s Washington suburbs mostly exhaled on Thursday after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced he was willing to let a less costly version of the light-rail Purple Line go forward.
But there was worry, too — especially in Prince George’s County, where political leaders expressed concern about Hogan’s demand that their county and neighboring Montgomery pick up a greater share of the project’s costs.
“It’s really too early to tell what all this means for the Purple Line,” said County Council chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). “We are pleased the governor gave the project the green light. But the conditions imposed create a great deal of uncertainty.”
“We need to know how much exactly is being asked for,” Franklin said. “We have to determine whether both counties can afford it, and it’s hard to know without knowing how much he wants.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker II (D), who earlier this month lost a bitter fight to raise property taxes in order to generate money for public schools, said his county “has already committed an extraordinary amount for a local government” toward the Purple Line.
But he pledged to “thoroughly review” Hogan’s proposal, and to consult with Montgomery officials “to analyze whether this new proposal maintains the spirit of the initial plan.”
In more affluent Montgomery, officials were more sanguine about Hogan’s push for additional local dollars.
“I’m very positive that we can work all of those details out,” said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). He said the additional money would “almost certainly” come from the county’s capital budget through the sale of general obligation bonds, which would allow the county to spread the financing out over a period of years.
“Could we bond-fund an extra $50 million? Probably,” said Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), vice president of the Montgomery County Council. “We have a very heavy capital program today, but I don’t think it would push us over the brink.”
Floreen said she was happy Hogan had finally made his announcement, after months of deliberations. “It takes a lot of the chest-bashing out of the conversation,” she said. “Now we get down to brass tacks.”
Miti Figueredo, a spokeswoman for the Chevy Chase Land Company, which has led the pro-Purple Line fight for the Montgomery business community, said business leaders have had no conversations with county officials about the possibility of pitching in, just as commercial property owners along part of the Metrorail Silver Line route have done via a special taxing district.
“We’re willing to have conversations about ‘How can we make this happen?’ ” Figueredo said. “I’m confident both counties will step up and make their contributions, because the project is so important to the economies of both counties.”
The Chevy Chase Land Company owns land at what will be a future Purple Line station on Connecticut Avenue, in Chevy Chase Lake.
Many of those who had feared Hogan would cancel the project altogether said there was time to worry about the specifics later.
“I’m just happy it’s been approved,” said Jim Estepp, president of the Prince George’s Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives, chief financial officers and chief operating officers who run businesses in the county.
“It’s not unusual for these burdens to fall on local jurisdictions. . . . Going forward, people are going to now be looking at the details.”
Although opponents of the rail line, including environmentalists, threatened legal challenges, transit advocates applauded Hogan’s decision.
“We’re thrilled,” said Purple Line Now executive director Christine Scott. “I think what we’ve heard here is that the governor gets it. Jobs and connecting the counties are key, and he understands that, so we’re tickled.”
At the same time, Scott added that she’s anxious to hear how the counties feel about their expected contributions. “I think we need to know more – the extent of what the governor is asking and how much they were prepared for,” she said.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the state should pay more.
“Given that the state and the federal government will often pay 100 percent of a highway project, it would be fairer for the state to put more money into the Purple Line than he’s proposing,” he said.
Montgomery council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda), chairman of the council’s transportation and environment committee, said he was confident that Hogan’s ask was “not a showstopper.”
“We can’t lose this project based on the numbers we’re talking about here,” Berliner said.
He also gave a shout-out to Hogan, who had criticized the Purple Line proposal harshly as a candidate but promised to keep an open mind and learn more about it once taking office.
“He came a long way with respect to this project. He really he was not a believer and over time he came to appreciate how important it was to fulfilling his fundamental objective, which is more jobs and a stronger economy.”
Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.
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