SEABROOK – A federal judge has effectively stopped the construction of the planned Purple Line, citing safety violations and decreased ridership at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) over the past months. In a ruling on Aug. 3, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said Maryland must complete a supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS) […]
SEABROOK – A federal judge has effectively stopped the construction of the planned Purple Line, citing safety violations and decreased ridership at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) over the past months.
In a ruling on Aug. 3, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said Maryland must complete a supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS) that analyzes the potential impacts of declining Metrorail ridership before the project can proceed.
The ruling cancels federal approval of the project, and with it the $900 million the federal government was expected to contribute.
Leon said while the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and not WMATA will operate the Purple Line, the fact that the Purple Line will share facilities and ridership with Metro means the state of the troubled Washington, D.C. agency must be taken into consideration when evaluating the project.
“While it is true that WMATA is a distinct entity from MTA… this does not provide a rational basis for defendants’ summary conclusion that a decline in ridership thereon has no effect on the Purple Line, given that the previous projections estimated over one quarter of Purple Line riders would use the WMATA Metrorail as part of their trip,” Leon wrote.
Additionally, Leon said safety issues at Metrorail – which have included a train derailment, red light overruns, and a Metro Transit Police officer’s arrest for attempting to aid ISIS in just the last two weeks – are impossible to ignore.
“Nor can I turn a blind eye to the recent extraordinary events involving seemingly endless Metrorail breakdowns and safety issues,” he wrote. “These serious issues, which may have long-term effects on Metro ridership, only underscore how important it was for defendants to take the requisite hard look at the potential effect of Metro’s safety issues on future Purple Line ridership.”
When asked for a comment from Metro, media relations staffer Richard Jordan simply said, “Purple Line is not a Metro project,” and directed questions to MTA.
Leon’s decision comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by citizens in Montgomery County that challenged the Purple Line under federal environmental and transportation statues. Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, an advocacy group fighting the line’s construction because the proposed path of the line would destroy the trail, expressed its support for the ruling.
“This ruling sends a very strong signal to the state of Maryland and any subdivision, such as Montgomery County, to cease any harmful action ahead of the law against the Georgetown Branch of the Capital Crescent Trail, the trees that line it and the parks through which it passes,” said Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
The judge’s ruling did not directly address any of the environmental claims the lawsuit raised.
Christine Real de Azua, a citizen also named as a plaintiff in the suit, said the outcome was a group effort.
“A long list of experts volunteered their research and analysis to unearth the truth about this project’s costs and what it would do to our environment and human health and safety,” she said. “Together, this team is showing that common sense and the law can prevail as we all seek what is truly in the public interest.”
But many state and Prince George’s County officials are unhappy with last week’s ruling.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn was unable to provide a detailed comment because the case is still considered pending, but did send a short statement, which read, “We are deeply disappointed this ruling puts the Purple Line in jeopardy. We will work closely with the attorney general to seek a quick decision from the court of appeals.”
County Executive Rushern Baker III also called for Attorney General Brian Frosh and Gov. Larry Hogan to appeal Leon’s decision and “take every possible step to ensure that it will not delay the beginning of construction.”
Construction on the 16.2-mile light rail line was scheduled to commence this fall in Prince George’s County. It is unknown what the new timeline for the project might be.
Baker also said while the current issues at WMATA are serious, he believes the agency will be able to improve and re-attract riders for both Metrorail and the Purple Line.
“As serious as Metro’s maintenance and safety issues are, we have confidence that commuter confidence will return and ridership on Metro will rebound well in advance of the projected opening of the Purple Line and that this decision is without merit,” he said in a statement.
He also stressed the benefits of the project for the county.
“The need for this vital east-west transportation link has never been more clear,” he said. “Prince George’s County residents strongly support the Purple Line, and welcome the transportation link it will provide to our communities, connecting them to jobs, recreation and educational opportunities.”