Gas-tax hike, public-private partnerships make uncertain transit projects feasible -- Gazette.Net


When the General Assembly began its 2013 session, two of the state’s most costly and high-profile transportation projects looked dead in the water, as funding dried up.

One week after the session’s close, the state is moving full-speed ahead, soliciting private-sector advice on funding and meeting with federal officials about how much money the state could get from Washington, D.C.

“Prior to the session, both the Red Line and the Purple Line were in jeopardy,” Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said. “We’re in a much better position now.”

The sudden forward motion on two long-planned light rail projects — the $2.1 billion Purple Line linking Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County and the $2.4 billion Red Line in Baltimore — is the result of two pieces of legislation. The administration’s gas tax hike will provide a funding stream for the projects through the final design phase, and the Public-Private Partnership bill will streamline and codify the process for the state to work with private investors on public projects.

The gas tax hike, which will fund both mass transit projects and road improvements, is expected to bring in about $4.4 billion in revenue during the next six years. The increase — from the current 23.5 cents per gallon to a possible 42.5 cents in July 2016 — will be phased in gradually over the next three years.

Brown (D) and Acting Deputy Transportation Secretary Leif A. Dormsjo met with U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration officials Monday to discuss federal support for the projects.

“We met basically to reaffirm our commitment to moving forward and to emphasize to them that it’s a commitment with urgency,” Brown said.

Construction on both projects is slated to begin in 2015, with 2020 targeted as an opening date.

Last week, the Maryland Transit Administration issued a request for information to get the private sector involved, asking for input on how the projects should be funded and built.

The plan, said Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, is to try to fund one of the projects through a public-private partnership, and use state and federal resources to complete the other.

“The Purple Line probably offers slightly more opportunities for a public-private partnership,” said Brown, who championed the partnership legislation through the General Assembly. “That being said, neither has to be a public-private partnership. But if one or both is developed that way, it frees up a lot of other resources, both state and federal, that we can then invest in other infrastructure projects.”

Brown said he is hoping for the federal government to split costs evenly with the state, but budget circumstances in Washington could change that funding formula in the future.

“Certainly in the backdrop of all this is sequestration,” Brown said. “Budget uncertainty is something we’re all painfully aware of.”

In May, the MTA will conduct two industry forums on the projects.

Brown said both forums already are oversubscribed, which shows the intense level of interest in the projects from the business community.