Purple Line suffers major setback in court

Metro’s current safety and ridership issues may doom the Purple Line.

A U.S. District Court judge said in a ruling on Monday that the Federal Transit Administration has failed to take a “hard look” at how Metro’s ridership and safety issues will impact the 16.2-mile Purple Line. That means, under his order, a new study and perhaps a lengthy delay — and maybe the final death blow — to the light-rail project, which is expected to serve as a major east-west transit connection between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

In the 12-page memorandum, Judge Richard Leon wrote that Maryland and federal officials must produce a supplemental environmental impact statement “as expeditiously as possible.” The ruling is an extension of what Leon told the parties in November, when he declined to reinstate the Purple Line Record of Decision, a federal environmental document that would allow construction on the $5.6 billion project to proceed.

This all comes in a response to a complaint from a Chevy Chase citizens group, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, that has been in the courts since 2014.

“In effect, FTA boldly concluded that there is no need for an SEIS, and the Purple Line will meet its established purposes, no matter what happens to WMATA Metrorail,” Leon wrote. “To say the least, this is a curious conclusion when one considers that one of the three explicit purposes identified for the Purple Line was to ‘provide better connections to Metrorail services.'”

Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said the ruling is an opportunity for state and federal officials to step back and re-evaluate transportation priorities.

“Better to re-evaluate than to continue to rush this fiscally irresponsible and environmentally damaging transit system,” Bhatt told the WBJ, adding that fixing Metro’s current issues should be the priority over the Purple Line.

The Purple Line is not a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority project, but it is designed to connect to the region’s subway system. Purple Line supporters say the project will create as many as 6,300 construction jobs and thousands of additional jobs, shave east-west travel times by as much as a half an hour and connect key employment nodes between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

An additional environmental review will delay the project further or even kill it. Maryland officials say they need the environmental approval restored by June 1 or they might have to suspend much or all of the rail project’s planning and design work because state money would run out, according to the Washington Post.

Leon notes that under current models, Metro ridership could decline anywhere from 3.7 percent to 27.4 percent by 2040. The Coalition for Smart Growth, a vehement Purple Line backer, said that it is certain Metro ridership will recover in the longterm.

“The Purple Line is a badly-needed east-west transit connection for access to jobs and revitalization, and significant ridership will be driven by that demand, as well as the revitalization inside the Beltway that the project will spur,” coalition Executive Director Stewart Schwartz said in a statement. “In an era of climate change, the most progressive transportation solution available is to build more transit.”

Gregory Sanders, vice president of rail advocacy group Purple Line NOW, said he hopes the FTA and the state of Maryland will appeal.

Leon took his time rendering a decision, driving Maryland officials to demand through the courts that he move faster. The judge addresses that issue in a footnote, writing that while Maryland’s “desire for a speedy resolution of the case is understandable,” it is his job to take his time, weigh competing interests and balance a heavy docket.

“The fact that I am issuing this opinion today, rather than as soon as Maryland would have liked, is not due to judicial neglect or disregard for the parties’ interests, but rather the byproduct of the very type of intricate docket juggling that is performed daily by District Court judges around the country,” Leon wrote.

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