Federal Transit Administration Joins Appeal of Purple Line Ruling

Agency and Maryland challenging earlier court ruling calling for new environmental study


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Purple Line rendering

Maryland Transit Administration

The Federal Transit Administration is now officially a partner with Maryland in the appeal of a U.S. District Curt judge's ruling in the Purple Line lawsuit.

The federal agency filed documents Friday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to join the state as it appeals Judge Richard Leon’s decision to call for a new environmental study of the 16.2-mile light-rail project.

In May, Leon sided with the claim of plaintiffs in the case—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail— that Metro’s safety issues and ridership decline warrant a new environmental study to determine what impact they would have on ridership on the Purple Line, which is planned to run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

Leon’s ruling has prevented Maryland from signing a full funding agreement with the federal government to access the $900 million in federal funds proposed for the project. After Leon’s ruling, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn suspended key elements of pre-construction work on the light-rail line because the state couldn’t afford to continue without the federal money. Maryland immediately appealed Leon’s ruling.

The FTA noted in court documents that it plans to contest whether the National Environmental Policy Act—the law at issue in the ongoing lawsuit—would require the agency to do the environmental study and whether Leon had the right to vacate the project’s federal approval, which the judge did in August.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the FTA's decision to join the appeal and how it could affect the court process.

Greg Sanders, vice president of the pro-transit group Purple Line Now, said in an email he hopes the appeals process will accelerate now that the FTA has joined the state in appealing Leon's ruling.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs submitted their response to the appeal earlier this month. The plaintiffs claimed the state’s appeal has no merit and granting the appeal would not be in the public interest.

“Purple Line construction would unleash certain and irretrievable harm on the public and the environment, including and not limited to high levels of stressful noise nearly around the clock and the loss of 48 acres of forest inside the Beltway and of the clean air, clean water and public health benefits the forest provides,” Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail wrote on its website about its response in the appeals case.

The plaintiffs urged the Court of Appeals not to grant the stay that Maryland is seeking in the case, which if granted by the court would reinstate federal approval for the project and enable the state to access federal funds.

The state has partnered with a private team of construction and finance companies—Purple Line Transit Partners—to build, operate and maintain the light-rail line under a 36-year, $5.6 billion contract. The state has warned that the project could be scrapped if the lawsuit, first filed in 2014, continues to prevent construction from beginning. If that happens, state officials have warned Maryland would lose $800 million already spent on engineering and design, plus penalties for breaking the contract with its partner.

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