Maryland is looking to partner with businesses to build the Purple Line under Maryland's new law allowing private companies to have greater control of public projects.
The Maryland Transit Authority on Thursday issued a request for information from businesses asking how they think a public-private partnership could help get the Purple Line built.
Gov. Martin O'Malley on Tuesday signed into a law a bill creating a framework for such partnerships in which the private business undertakes much of the cost for projects such as highway or light rail construction and is repaid through fees on users of the finished product, such as rail fares. That can mean higher costs for drivers, as private companies typically charge higher tolls than states.
Such a partnership could help the state secure critical federal funding for the $2.1 billion, 16-mile rail project that would run from New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County.
"The competition for transit funds is very fierce, I would say, and I would think considering there's a finite amount of resources, why not include the private sector in helping to meet some of the needs of transit here in the region," said Aubrey Thagard, economic development adviser to Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker.
Thagard said the county is interested in examining the possibility of building the rail line through a partnership, as well as any other innovative ways to get it done.
Typically, the state or a county would contract with private businesses to design and build infrastructure and then retain operation and collect the fares or tolls.
The proposal has support from officials in Montgomery County as well.
"Anything we can do to make this a more cost-effective project we ought to be exploring," said Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner, chairman of the council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee.
"I see no downside here, only upside."
The MTA's man in charge of transit development, Henry Kay, said the request for information is only the beginning of a long and complicated process that could lead to a partnership.
"We've never done it before, at least not for a project this big, so the request for information is a way of asking the industry, smart people who have done this before in other places, whether they think we're on the right track," Kay said. "Based on that, we can shape a future request for proposals. Because the whole point here is to find the right balance between the public interest and private creativity."