Red Light for Red Line, Yellow Light for Purple Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today that he was canceling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with some caveats that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

Local Purple Line advocates claim that the line will pay for itself by increasing property values along the route and therefore property tax revenues. In fact, this is a zero-sum game: any increases along the route would be matched by decreases in property values elsewhere in the county. But from the rhetoric, it seems likely that they will propose to use tax-increment financing–which takes all of the tax revenues from increased property values–to pay the county share of the Purple Line. But that may not even be enough to cover the cost.

So it is possible that the Purple Line will never get built. That would be a win for Maryland taxpayers; a win for commuters, because the Purple Line is predicted to increase traffic congestion; and a win for transit riders, because the Purple Line is so expensive it will almost certain force Maryland Transit to cut bus service.