The announcement marks the state's first commitment in budget dollars to completing the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light-rail line connecting Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which officials now estimate will cost $1.925 billion. It is scheduled to open in 2020.
Construction won't begin until 2015, but the Federal Transit Administration recently gave approval for officials to begin the engineering phase of the Purple Line in October.
"We're in a new phase," said Ben Ross, a transit advocate who has led the group Transit First. "The feds have given the go-ahead, and the state is acting on it and making a real commitment to this project."
About $30.8 million in engineering funding for fiscal 2012 was projected in budget language approved by the General Assembly earlier this year, according to Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. An additional $38 million in engineering funding is projected for fiscal 2013.
The funds, a part of the state's transportation trust fund, came from increases in certificate and title fees for vehicles, as well as higher fees for vanity tags and dealer processing charges, Cahalan said.
"We'd projected that we'd be entering this phase provided we got all the approvals by the FTA that we expected this year," he said. "All the money goes into the transportation trust fund, and it's generated just about the right amount of money that was needed at this time."
The Purple Line's rising price tag -- officials estimated the project would cost $1.5 billion two years ago -- has critics second-guessing the need to spend millions of dollars in state funds on a rail project that will require millions more in federal funding to complete.
"The state needs to look at their priorities," said Ajay Bhatt, president of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a group that opposes the light rail. "They're basically throwing money away over the next two years on a project that they can't afford."
Some local officials, including Chevy Chase Councilwoman Patricia Burda, would prefer an express bus line, an option she said comes with a more realistic price tag.
"With all the projects that are on the table right now, and the state of the state and the counties' finances, this seems like it's good money after bad," Burda said.