Purple Line supporters say judge’s ruling presents an opportunity to end legal delays

Purple Line supporters Monday described a federal judge’s latest ruling in the long-running Purple Line lawsuit as “ludicrous” and “terribly flawed,” while the plaintiffs called it a “victory for everybody.”

Both sides were quick to react after Judge Richard Leon issued a ruling Monday morning that called for the Federal Transit Administration to conduct a new environmental review that thoroughly considers the possible impact of Metro’s ongoing ridership decline and safety issues on the planned 16.2-mile light-rail project.

The long-awaited ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by two Town of Chevy Chase residents—John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua—and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the ruling “incredibly disappointing, but not entirely surprising,” and said the state “will continue to pursue any and all legal action to ensure that the Purple Line will move forward.”

Leon took about five months to issue the ruling after receiving information from FTA and Maryland Transit Administrations that stated Metro’s woes wouldn’t significantly impact ridership on the Purple Line. It could take several months or more than a year to conduct the new environmental analysis ordered by the judge, which requires public hearings, if the state accepts the ruling and doesn’t appeal it.

“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 in a statement issued Monday afternoon. He said the ruling ignores the opinions of federal and state transportation experts as well as environmental advocates who support 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,” Hogan said.

Opponents of the project were pleased with the ruling.

“Obviously, it’s a victory of substantive analysis over agency arrogance,” Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said Monday. “Before Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the state continue to push this fiscally irresponsible and environmentally damaging project, we should focus on Metro’s woes.”

He said the state and the two counties that are contributing funding to the project should shift that money to help the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority fix Metro and to other projects that could reduce traffic congestion in the area.

“This really is a victory for everybody,” Bhatt said.

Fitzgerald, who also serves as an attorney on the case, said in a statement the judge’s order requiring the FTA to conduct a new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement “should provide the public with a chance to put up-to-date facts on the record.”

Leon’s decision is likely to further delay the start of construction, which was scheduled to begin late last year. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said officials are reviewing Leon’s order before determining whether they’ll take additional legal steps. Earlier this month, Attorney General Brian Frosh requested a legal maneuver in D.C.’s federal Court of Appeals to try to force Leon to issue a ruling by June 1.

State officials have warned in court filings that further delay could result in losses of $13 million per month and possibly lead to the cancellation of the project. Leon previously vacated the project’s federal approval in an August ruling, preventing the state from securing $900 million in federal funding needed to pay for construction, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion.

The entire project is estimated to cost $5.6 billion over the 36-year contract with the state’s private partner—Purple Line Transit Partners—which is a group of finance and construction companies working with the state to design, build, operate and maintain the light-rail line.

The state has also estimated that it stands to lose about $800 million that’s already been spent on planning and designing the project as well as for contractual penalties that must be paid to the private partner if the project is cancelled.

In his ruling, Leon said the federal and Maryland transit administrations failed to adequately analyze the potential impact of Metro’s ridership decline on the future ridership of the Purple Line.

However, the transit agencies found that even if no Metro riders used the Purple Line, the light-rail line would still have about 50,000 weekday riders by 2040, compared to the 69,300 including Metro riders that is currently projected. Ridership at that level would still be enough to meet the line’s purpose—to create a reliable east-west transit system between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, according to the agencies.

Metro’s ridership problems are among about two dozen environmental issues that the plaintiffs claimed the agencies failed to account for in their 2014 environmental review of the project.

Leon said he’ll “issue an opinion on these remaining issues in the next few weeks”—raising the possibility that additional roadblocks besides Metro’s issues could be raised. It’s not immediately clear if the state can appeal Monday’s ruling given that Leon hasn’t ruled on the other pending issues in the case.

Meanwhile, Purple Line supporters believe Leon’s decision provides the state with an opportunity to appeal his order.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner called the ruling “a terribly flawed decision, one that I am confident will be reversed by the Court of Appeals—and the sooner the better.”

Berliner added that Leon’s opinion is “profoundly lacking in logic” because it says Metro’s current travails will have a profound impact on ridership on the Purple Line in the year 2040, when FTA provided evidence that shows if there was not a single rider from Metro, and in effect no Metro system at all, that the Purple Line would still be in the public interest.

The Purple Line would be operated by the state’s private partnerer, not WMATA, but the line is designed to connect with Metrorail at five stations where riders are expected to transfer between the two transit systems.

County Council member Hans Riemer, an ardent Purple Line supporter, said he was not surprised by Leon’s decision.

“I think it’s good that we got this decision now, rather than six months from now,” Riemer said. “I think the judge probably would have sat on it as long as he possibly could.”

The judge wrote in his order that the decision took a considerable amount of time because he had a large caseload. He noted that since late January he has issued more than 22 written opinions and presided over 60 hearings in other cases.

“[Leon] is so wrong that in my opinion it proves that he’s biased,” Riemer said. “The state has already responded that a reduction in Metro ridership is irrelevant to the core decision of whether this is a cost-effective project. Even if Metro doesn’t exist, there’s still enough Purple Line riders to make it a good federal, state and local investment.”

However, Bhatt said state officials should be held accountable for signing the contract with the private partner while the federal lawsuit was still pending.

“Who’s going to be held accountable for the state’s decision to sign the $5.6 billion contract while the federal lawsuit hadn’t yet had its day in court?” Bhatt asked.

Pro-transit groups on Monday universally panned the judge’s decision.

“The slapdash and tardy ruling outright ignores much of the expert testimony that has already answered questions raised again by the court,” Ralph Bennett, president of Purple Line NOW, said in a statement. “Still, we are relieved to finally have a ruling, as Judge Leon has given ample grounds for appeal and we trust that the fundamental strength of the project will be vindicated in higher court.”

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports transit-oriented development projects in the D.C. region, maintained the Purple Line will spur economic development along its east-west route between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s counties.

“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,” Executive Director Stewart Schwartz said in a statement.

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