SEABROOK – Purple Line opponents had an extra reason to be thankful last week after a federal judge reaffirmed his decision halting construction on the light rail project. On Nov. 22, in response to appeals of the initial ruling by the state of Maryland and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued […]
SEABROOK – Purple Line opponents had an extra reason to be thankful last week after a federal judge reaffirmed his decision halting construction on the light rail project.
On Nov. 22, in response to appeals of the initial ruling by the state of Maryland and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued a new opinion that affirmed his August decision to suspend the Record of Decision (ROD), which gives federal legal approval for the project, pending further review of the Purple Line’s impact in light of safety and ridership concerns with the D.C. Metro system. However, Leon also remanded the ROD back to the FTA to determine if a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) is needed. In his previous ruling, he ordered a new statement be prepared.
“I reaffirm my judgment that defendants violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when they wholly failed to consider the impact that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail’s recent safety and ridership issues could have on the Purple Line Project,” Leon wrote. “Nevertheless, I find that the FTA must be given the initial opportunity to assess the significance of this new information and determine whether a full SEIS is necessary.”
The new ruling is a partial victory for both sides in the lawsuit. The state of Maryland requested the ROD be remanded to FTA, but also that it be reinstated while the additional analysis went on. Plaintiffs in the case, which include two Montgomery County residents and a community group, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, wanted the ROD suspended, which Leon upheld.
Christine Real de Azua, one of the citizen plaintiffs, said the judge made the right call in halting the project.
“It’s about a full and fair assessment of the project and its alternatives. In our view, that hasn’t really been done,” she said. “There are tremendous costs that come with this project and what the judge is doing is giving everyone, especially the agencies, a chance to step back.”
Purple Line opponents say there would be environmental harm from the removal of a three-mile section of the Capital Crescent Trail – and the trees surrounding it – to make way for the light rail line.
Real de Azua said the project’s delay allows the agencies involved to “think through” the priorities of the region, and questioned whether the money proposed to be spent on the Purple Line could be put to better use, such as through comparable bus routes using existing roads. She also questioned whether the economic benefits for the region will be available to all residents along the route.
“The rationale is development. Is that the best way to provide opportunities to the most people who need it?” she said.
Proponents of the Purple Line say they do believe the economic benefits outweigh the costs.
Prince George’s County’s government has been a strong supporter of the project. The county is slated to have 11 Purple Line stops, and before the court rulings, construction was to begin in Prince George’s this fall.
County Council Vice-Chair Dannielle Glaros said she was disappointed in the judge’s ruling.
“I’m deeply disappointed. This project is absolutely critical to increase access and opportunities for residents across Prince George’s and Montgomery County,” she said.
County Executive Rushern Baker, III also said the line would increase access for county residents, and called for an end to the delays.
“Prince George’s County residents are anxious for work to begin on this critical east-west transportation link. Further unwarranted delays are frustrating, and simply deprive our citizens of timely access to jobs and educational opportunities, and improvements to our communities,” he said in a statement. “We need to move forward with construction of the Purple Line now.”
The Purple Line would connect New Carrollton Metro station with Bethesda Metro station using 16.2 miles of track. Although it shares stations with WMATA Metrorail, it will be operated by the private developer and then by the Maryland Transit Authority and not WMATA. State and federal agencies used this distinction in arguing that Metro’s problems should not affect Purple Line approval, but Judge Leon disagreed.
“The administrative record flatly contradicts that conclusion. The Purple Line’s final environmental impact statement, the very document that plaintiffs want the FTA to supplement, explicitly stated that one of the Purple Line’s purposes is to ‘provide better connections to (WMATA) Metrorail services,’” he wrote. “As a result, the agencies’ categorical decision not to evaluate the significance of WMATA’s new safety and ridership issues was arbitrary and capricious.”
To make sure that evaluation occurred, Leon had initially ordered a SEIS that included new data about decreased ridership on Metrorail be completed. However, the new ruling instead remands the ROD back to FTA, which Leon said has “‘a high level of technical expertise’” to determine what a SEIS would need to include, or if one would be needed.
Although the line’s construction remains delayed, pre-construction work is allowed to proceed, and public outreach efforts continue.
And Real de Azua said project opponents will continue their court battle. They are waiting to see how the agencies involved respond to the Nov. 22 ruling, she said.
“This isn’t the final step,” she said.