Federal officials have given Maryland the green light to continue planning for its proposed Purple Line light-rail route, though looming federal budget cuts could still slow or derail the $1.9 billion project.
The Federal Transit Administration last week gave the Maryland Transit Administration permission to start the preliminary engineering phase on the 16-mile route from Bethesda to New Carrollton. MTA officials now can begin a detailed design process and estimate they could begin construction in 2015 and start moving passengers in 2020.
"The Purple Line will be an environmentally friendly option that will reduce gridlock and connect citizens to economic opportunities throughout the region," Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said Friday, adding that the federal approval "affirms the benefits and feasibility of this project.
Henry Kay, MTA's executive director for transit development and delivery, said planners were encouraged that the FTA gave the project a medium-high rating — typically the best rating given on its low-to-high scale.
"There are probably hundreds of potential rail and transit projects in the country, and only a couple dozen survive this step of the process," Mr. Kay said. "If you know what goes into it and how vigorous their process is, it's very meaningful."
Federal officials also said the go-ahead was an early but critical milestone.
Mr. Kay said that the first half of the project's design phase essentially will be preliminary engineering and that the FTA will have to approve a final design within the next couple of years.
The MTA and FTA also will have to reach an agreement on the amount of federal funding, which could be one of the project's biggest remaining hurdles.
State officials are asking the FTA to cover half the project's cost through its New Starts program. But they also know that expected federal budget cuts could force the FTA to reduce funding or turn down some projects.
Congress agreed last month to extend its current transit funding levels through the end of March, at which point lawmakers are expected to consider cuts as part of a longer-term deal.
"This is not business as usual," Caitlin Hughes Rayman, the Maryland Department of Transportation's assistant secretary of transportation policy, told state legislators last month, warning that the federal-funding picture for state road and transit projects "seems to get worse every few months."
Mr. Kay downplayed the potential impact of funding cuts on the project, saying that MTA officials expect New Starts will continue funding projects for the foreseeable future, though the Purple Line could lose some funding.
He said that the MTA expects to reach a funding agreement with federal officials by 2013, and that the federal share potentially could be less than 50 percent.
"I wouldn't say we're worried [about funding], but it's certainly something we track," Mr. Kay said. "At this point, we're watching the debate in Congress, and it's hard to tell how it will turn out."
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