October 29th, 2020

Purple Line Construction Hits a Wall: What Next for Long Branch?

Tunnel construction in Long Branch. Picture credit: Bethesda Magazine

The Purple Line light rail line had a near-death experience this fall.

A dispute over money halted construction and the target date for opening the long-awaited East-West transportation link is likely to be pushed back further. The uncertainty and delay has many Long Branch businesses worried.

In September, the PLTC – the industrial group tasked with construction of the light rail project — parted ways with its employer, the state of Maryland. The PLTC is a consortium of contractors led by the Texas-based Fluor corporation.

The disagreement between the two sides was over what the PLTC claims is $800 million in unpaid cost overruns owed to it by the State.  After a Baltimore court ruled, mid-September, that the construction contractor had the legal right to quit, the two sides, in effect, got a divorce. 

Other than limited work on erosion control and relocating utilities, construction has come to a halt.  In recent weeks, the heavy trucks and loud noise long familiar to Long Branch businesses and residents have been conspicuous by their absence.

The State Strikes Back

Governor Larry Hogan, for his part, was unfazed.  On Oct. 1 he announced that Maryland will make sure the project gets built — no matter what.  “We have a whole group of great construction companies that want to finish the job,” he said. “The state is going to finish the job.”

At Hogan’s direction, the Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA) took over management of the whole project.  Transportation secretary Greg Slater and MTA’s Purple Line executive director Matthew Pollack are now exploring their options. They say that task is likely to take four to six months. 

One possibility is that the state takes on the role of lead contractor itself and manages things until the line is built.  Another is negotiating a new deal with an outside private consortium – possibly with the remnants of the PLTC.  

“I’m very glad [governor] Hogan has been decisive about finishing the Purple Line,” said Long Branch Business League president Carlos Perozo. “The project needs to be finished as soon as possible,” he said, adding that the construction process itself seriously hurts small business, but the completed rail line “will bring economic growth to our whole area.”

Local Fallout

Long Branch residents are voicing concerns about how all this will impact the quality of life, and safety, of the Long Branch neighborhood. 

Resident Annie Tulkin, writing on behalf of NIMT (Neighbors Impacted by Manchester Tunnel), has raised a series of questions directly with MTA director Matt Pollack, several of these relating to Arliss Street, which has been half closed and otherwise suffered greatly from construction.  

Might through traffic on Arliss be re-opened, if only temporarily, and the unsightly big purple fence taken down, Tulkin asked?  

Not yet, came the reply – and probably not until all construction is complete. 

Most recently, Tulkin has raised several other questions with MTA: 

  • Can the state install temporary lighting on Arliss to replace several streetlamps removed during construction, rendering the street unsafe and dark at night? 
  • Can it ameliorate the unsafe pedestrian crossing across Piney Branch Rd. at the Long Branch Community Center?
  • When will it restore the two bus stops on E. Wayne that were removed during an earlier phase of the construction?  

As of the writing of this newsletter, Tulkin has not yet received a reply to those requests for information.

Even before this latest set of problems hit the Purple Line construction project, the target date for its opening had already been pushed back from 2022 to 2024.   Further delays in the opening date are all but certain.