Appeals Court Rules in Favor of State, Federal Governments in Purple Line Case

Judges reverse lower court’s ruling to conduct new environmental study


Published:

A Purple Line sign along Connecticut Avenue

Andrew Metcalf

The major legal challenge to Maryland’s Purple Line has fallen in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, judges on the federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Federal Transit Administration and Maryland Transit Administration properly studied the impact Metro’s problems would have on the light-rail project being built in Maryland. As a result, the three judge panel ruled the transit agencies would not have to conduct a new environmental study to examine other potential routes for the Purple Line.

The ruling reverses a May U.S. District Court ruling by Judge Richard Leon in which he ordered that a new supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) be drafted for the project. He found Metro’s recent ridership decline and safety issues could hurt Purple Line ridership.

The Appeals Court ruling published Tuesday found that FTA and Maryland “sufficiently examined the impact of Metrorail issues” on the Purple Line when the agencies submitted a report to the District Court in December 2016 that examined the ridership decline.

That report examined five different scenarios of Metro ridership decline, including the very unlikely chance that Metro wouldn’t transfer any riders to the light-rail line. It determined that under any of the scenarios, the Purple Line would still meet its primary goal to provide east-west transit connection between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The ruling is likely a major blow to the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and the two Town of Chevy Chase residents who had pursued the case against the Purple Line in federal court since 2014. The Purple Line opponents, who have called for turning the rail line’s route into a park, were previously buoyed by Leon’s rulings against the project.

However, the state appeared to have seen the writing on the wall in the case after the Court of Appeals in August struck down Leon’s decision to vacate the project’s federal approval. That decision enabled Gov. Larry Hogan and the state to sign the $900 million full funding grant agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation that will help pay for the project’s estimated $2.4 billion construction cost.

"Once again common sense has prevailed over the frivolous legal maneuverings of a handful of obstructionists looking to halt progress in our region," Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, wrote in an email. "This is a win for the people of Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, the state of Maryland, and the National Capital Region. Our administration looks forward to delivering this vital transit project."

Immediately after the funding agreement was signed in late August, Hogan climbed into an excavator and tore down a building to begin construction on the 16.2-mile light-rail line. Since then, work has been ongoing to remove trees along the former Georgetown Branch Trail and begin staging construction equipment.

The trail group and Town of Chevy Chase residents are also pursuing a second case contesting whether the federal government properly vetted the project before providing the federal funding for it. Leon is reviewing that case in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Earlier this month, attorneys for the state filed a motion to dismiss the case. The plaintiffs could also request the U.S. Supreme Court review the Appeals Court ruling in the Metro-related case.

The Metro case, however, delayed construction on the project for nearly a year after Leon vacated the federal approval. Maryland was initially planning to begin construction on the project at the end of 2016.

The project is being built by Purple Line Transit Partners under a $5.6 billion, 36-year public private partnership agreement with the state. The transit partners will also operate and maintain the light-rail line after it’s completed. The Purple Line is expected to open in 2022.

The line will stretch from downtown Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County and stop at 21 stations—including four that connect to Metro stations in Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.

The Purple Line map

The Appeals Court also ruled in favor of the FTA on the plaintiffs’ other challenges against the Purple Line, which Leon had previously ruled lacked merit. The court’s opinion, written by Judge Judith Rogers, notes that the environmental review conducted by FTA and Maryland for the Purple Line fulfilled the purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“As the [final environmental impact] explained, Maryland initially considered numerous alternatives, evaluating them for their effectiveness in meeting project goals, engineering feasibility, cost, public support, and environmental impact,” the opinion reads.

Purple Line Opinion by AJ Metcalf on Scribd

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