We’ve all heard the stories of how American communities had safe, cheap, reliable public transportation, often operated by private companies. As the suburbs grew — the story goes — gasoline and tire companies banded together to put the trolleys out of business in favor of the automobile, transforming the countryside into a car culture. Maybe when we’re stuck in a jammed East-West Highway or a clogged Wisconsin Avenue, we think wistfully to that time gone by.
Gov. Martin O’Malley might have been thinking about that era Monday as he called for a public-private partnership to build and operate the Purple Line, the 16-mile east-west light rail line planned to connect Bethesda with New Carrollton. The line is expected to cost something on the order of $2.2 billion, and let’s face it, those kinds of samoleons can’t be collected from the pockets of Maryland taxpayers no matter how high the state’s gas tax rises.
On Monday, O’Malley (D) ponied up $400 million toward the project. The rest, he said, would come from federal grants, local contributions, more from the state — and private investment.
State officials say they envision private companies bidding to operate the trains at a price low enough to win the contract but high enough to turn a profit. The contract will include a set of performance standards; don’t meet the standards and the company isn’t paid. (Fares would be set by the Maryland Transit Administration.)
The system motivates the company to operate as efficiently as possible. Greater efficiencies mean the company is more profitable. But a question about fares looms large, as public transit is heavily subsidized.
Future Purple Line riders — many of whom will be Montgomery County residents — have a right to cock an eyebrow at the set-up. The Maryland government does not have a great track record at regulating monopolies.
For the time being, riders can give the state the benefit of the doubt and dream about an efficient public transit system that connects the jobs of Bethesda with the transit hub in New Carrollton. Whether the dream becomes a reality will need time.