SEABROOK – A federal judge has doubled down on his decision to halt the Purple Line in its tracks. On Monday, Judge Richard Leon filed a memorandum in the ongoing civil case between citizen groups including Montgomery County-based Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the state of Maryland […]
SEABROOK – A federal judge has doubled down on his decision to halt the Purple Line in its tracks.
On Monday, Judge Richard Leon filed a memorandum in the ongoing civil case between citizen groups including Montgomery County-based Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the state of Maryland over the planned light rail line between New Carrollton and Bethesda. The document indicates Leon is standing by his initial ruling declaring “the necessity of a SEIS (supplemental environmental impact statement) addressing the potential impact of WMATA’s (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) ridership and safety issues.”
“After careful consideration of the motions, the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, I find that the defendants have failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential impact that WMATA’s ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line Project and conclude for the following reasons that a SEIS that addresses these issues is in fact required,” Leon wrote.
Leon’s ruling does not address other complaints made by the plaintiffs, but the judge said a fuller ruling was in the works.
Many Prince George’s County leaders have long supported the project, including County Executive Rushern Baker, III, who says it will be benefit the county by providing “another transportation option, while creating economic opportunity.”
“Prince George’s County is obviously very disappointed in today’s ruling that will once again delay the Purple Line, one of the most important public transportation infrastructure projects in our region and the state,” Baker said. “This decision has created yet another obstacle that will impede this vitally important project, designed to improve the travel of residents between the two most populous counties in Maryland.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the decision was “incredibly disappointing, but not entirely surprising.”
“The fact that it took a federal judge this long to reach the conclusion that more study is needed is completely baffling and, if allowed to stand, will cause irreparable harm to this vital project and cost the state hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars,” Hogan said. “The judge’s concerns were thoroughly addressed by federal transit officials by studies already completed and in public testimony more than five months ago.”
In August 2016, Leon had ruled that the FTA needed to prepare a SEIS, and revoked the federal record of decision (ROD) that provides the legal standing for the project to move forward. The FTA appealed, and Leon amended his judgement to say the FTA had to evaluate whether an SEIS was necessary. In December 2016, the FTA and the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) concluded the SEIS was not necessary because the Purple Line’s route and construction would remain the same regardless of Metro ridership.
Leon’s most recent ruling reveals that the judge believes the FTA acted “arbitrarily or capriciously” in deciding a SEIS wasn’t needed, in part because arguments prepared by experts on behalf of the plaintiffs were not properly addressed.
“FTA failed to consider relevant information when making its decision not to prepare an SEIS,: Leon ruled. “MTA drafted a memorandum to the FTA that concluded that plaintiffs’ submissions did not support a SEIS, but the memorandum included no analysis, nor even a mention, of plaintiffs’ expert declarations and their criticism of MTA and FTA’s Metrorail ridership assumptions… FTA’s mere recitation that it considered them is insufficient.”
Leon also states the MTA analysis of Metrorail ridership in the future included five “wildly disparate scenarios” that would result in Purple Line ridership declines of between 3.7 and 27.4 percent. He argued that it is surprising “neither FTA nor MTA attempted to critically assess or discern which” scenario is “actually most likely to occur.”
The ruling means the ROD is not reinstated, which prevents the project from accessing federal funds earmarked for it – $325 million. A total of $900 million in federal grants was anticipated, and Hogan said he will not support the project without federal dollars.
The state has already invested millions of dollars into pre-construction projects, including land acquisition, soil borings and station artwork designs. The Washington Post reports that the state could lose $800 million if it has to cancel the project. According to court filings, if the approval is not reinstated by June 1, it will have to consider cancelation because state money will run out within 60 days.
However, in his statement, Hogan said the state is still committed to the project.
“This is not a political issue – it’s an important transportation and transit priority for Maryland and the region that has strong bipartisan support. The state will continue to pursue any and all legal action to ensure that the Purple Line will move forward,” he said.