WASHINGTON D.C. – State officials are pushing back against the decision of a federal judge to halt construction of the Purple Line. On Aug. 23, Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a request for reconsideration in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in an attempt to get Judge Richard Leon to reconsider his […]
WASHINGTON D.C. – State officials are pushing back against the decision of a federal judge to halt construction of the Purple Line.
On Aug. 23, Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a request for reconsideration in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in an attempt to get Judge Richard Leon to reconsider his decision to cancel federal approval of, and funding for, the project until a new environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed that takes into account the flagging ridership numbers of the D.C. Metro system.
Although the Purple Line is a separate project managed by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and not the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the line will connect with several Metrorail stations and share ridership with Metro. Judge Leon, in his ruling on Aug. 3, wrote that the nominal separation of the agencies “does not provide a rational basis for defendants’ summary conclusion that a decline in ridership thereon has no effect on the Purple Line.”
“Nor can I turn a blind eye to the recent extraordinary events involving seemingly endless Metrorail breakdowns and safety issues,” the decision continues. “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.”
However, in his court filing, Frosh said even if ridership were decreased due to problems at Metro, that would not merit a new EIS.
“Substantially lower ridership on the Purple Line, even if it were to occur, would not increase the project’s environmental impacts,” he wrote.
Frosh also said delaying the start of construction is costing the state of Maryland $13 million per month, and such losses jeopardize the project ever getting off the ground.
“An extended delay could result in cancellation of the project altogether, which would deprive the state’s residents of the substantial benefits of the Purple Line, cause the loss of all state funds invested to date, and trigger additional financial obligations under a public-private partnership agreement,” he wrote.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has also expressed its support for restoring federal approval, calling Leon’s decision “clear error” and “manifest injustice.”
“The court impermissibly substituted its judgment for that of FTA in making the ultimate finding that the information on WMATA Metrorail’s issues presents a significant environmental impact,” the FTA’s document said.
Ralph Bennett, president of the advocacy group Purple Line Now, called the attorney general’s documents “excellent” and said the judge was acting improperly when he ordered a new EIS.
“This is illegal. The judge exceeded his authority in requiring a new environmental impact statement. He could ask the U.S. Department of Transportation, but only they have the authority to order one,” he said.
The judge has 60 days to reply to the request for reconsideration, Bennett said.
“All we can do is wait. We have requested the possibility of an amicus brief, but that seems neither particularly needed or wanted,” he said.
The $5.6 billion project was financed through a public-private partnership, with public money coming from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the state of Maryland and the federal government. The state was set to formally sign grants from the federal government, clearing the last hurdle to the start of construction, which was planned to kick off this fall in Prince George’s County. Leon’s decision could delay that by up to six months.
Bennett said he is trying to remain optimistic.
“I have to be optimistic. The decision is so off-the-wall,” he said. “My worst suspicion is this is a systematic effort to deny the project. But my best suspicion is that the judge will reconsider and we can move forward.”
Supporters of the 16.2-mile light rail line from New Carrollton to Bethesda say it will provide a much needed east-west transit link for the region.
“Anybody who drives in traffic around here understands that we need another way to get around,” Bennett said. “And in six years (before the line opens in 2022), the traffic is going to get much worse.”
Opponents of the project include the Montgomery County group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, which filed the lawsuit that lead to Leon’s ruling. The group is concerned about the loss of trees and parkland, and other environmental impacts. The ruling did not address these arguments.
Many leaders in Prince George’s County are strong supporters of the project, including County Executive Rushern Baker III and members of the county council.