Local Leaders Urge Judge in Purple Line Case To Make a Decision

Ongoing delays due to lawsuit are costing the state money, elected officials said


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Labor union members gathered outside the Silver Spring library at a rally in support of the Purple Line Tuesday

Andrew Metcalf

Elected officials took a stand Tuesday against what now seems to be an indefinite delay by a federal judge whose rulings last year in a federal lawsuit stopped the Purple Line in its tracks.

Leaders including Rep. Jamie Raskin, County Executives Ike Leggett and Rushern Baker as well as more than a dozen other representatives from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties joined with more than 50 Purple Line supporters and construction workers at the Silver Spring library to call for federal Judge Richard Leon to issue a new ruling in the ongoing lawsuit.

Leon did not update his ruling in the case by April 28—the date the state and federal government had filed motions requesting him to do so.

Leggett said Leon “started this process” that led to the delay in starting construction of the 16.2-mile light-rail line by indicating in his ruling his concern about the project’s cost to taxpayers. The project is estimated to cost more than $2 billion to construct, and about $5.6 billion over the 35-year contract with the private firms that will build and operate it. But Leon’s ruling is costing the state about $13 million per month, according to Maryland officials.

“Let me just say very politely, judge, your delay in making the decision is costing the taxpayers money every day, every hour,” Leggett said. “I believe a decision should come as soon as possible.”

He later added he doesn’t believe the judge can do anything to “ultimately destroy this project.”

“The project will be built,” Leggett said. “I am confident of that.”

The rally started off on a bright note for Purple Line supporters, with Raskin noting that Congress is set to approve $125 million in federal funding for the project in a federal funding bill this week. The move would end some speculation that the Trump administration could slash federal funding for the Purple Line because the project doesn’t have a signed full funding agreement as a result of the lawsuit. The project is expected to receive about $900 million in federal funds.

“Congress has made itself clear: We want the Purple Line built,” Raskin said.

Leon has been mulling over the case since the Maryland and federal transit administrations sent him information late last year stating that Metro’s ridership and safety issues would not significantly impact the viability of the Purple Line. Leon had ruled in August in favor of the plaintiffs in the case—Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—who had claimed Metro’s spiraling issues warranted additional study because the Purple Line will rely on the transit system for about 25 percent of its riders.

In November, Leon requested the additional information from the two transit administrations, which was submitted in December. Since receiving that information, Leon has been weighing whether to call for a new supplemental environmental impact statement for the project, which would further delay the start of construction and require additional analysis of the light-rail line, or reinstate the project’s federal approval to allow construction to begin.

Construction was previously scheduled to begin late last year.

Last month, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan raised questions about whether the judge had a conflict of interest in the case. Hogan noted, somewhat inaccurately, that the judge lived near Columbia Country Club and the Town of Chevy Chase, where the most ardent opposition to the light-rail line has fomented. The governor also referred to allegations that Leon’s wife is a member of a Chevy Chase neighborhood group that has links to another group that opposes the Purple Line. However, there’s been no evidence that she’s been involved in opposing the project.

The Democrats gathered at the event Tuesday lightly chastised Hogan for his remarks. Raskin said “we don’t make fun of judges,” while Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner said “we cannot follow the President Trump model of calling out federal judges,” referring to the president’s derogatory comments while on the campaign trail and earlier this year.

But Berliner then described Metro’s issues as “a false red herring” that’s been debunked with the information submitted by the transit agencies.

“Everyone has done their work,” Berliner said. “It’s time for the federal judge to do his work.”

Leggett said he doesn’t believe Hogan’s remarks would impact the judge’s ruling.

“It may have been disappointing in the mind of the judge,” Leggett said. “But I don’t think any federal judge would hold a decision because someone has questioned his objectivity.”

The elected officials said the project would bring economic growth and new jobs and connect low-income communities with job centers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. If built, the line will run from along an east-west route with 21 stations between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras said the line will usher in development in the Langley Park and Long Branch areas.

“This is an area in need of development,” Taveras said. “It needs an injection of facelifts and the Purple Line would bring that.”

Dennis Desmond, a business manager with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the line would not only transport commuters, but also “transport our workforce into viable careers.”

Also attending the rally was Greg Sanders, vice president of Purple Line Now! and the son of the late transit activist Harry Sanders, who first started advocating for the transit line in 1986 and pressed for its development for more than 25 years before he died in 2010.

Sanders said his frustration level is “pretty high” given the delays and recent uncertainty surrounding the project.

“All we can ask of the judge is a quick and timely action,” Sanders said. “That’s what the project is waiting on. It’s not waiting on the Trump administration, it’s not waiting on Congress. It’s waiting on his ruling.”

Leggett, a former law professor, said the state could appeal the case to a higher court even if Leon doesn’t issue a decision, but doing so is unusual and “not that successful.”

“It might be premature at this point,” Leggett said. “If we’re close to some other deadline down the line, then that may be appropriate.”

Despite the delays, the mood at the event seemed optimistic, as cranes and construction crews buzzed in the background—a sign of the development that Leggett said was linked to the future transit connections created by building the Purple Line.

Raskin said the fight to support the project is not over and officials must continue to work together to make it a reality.

“One day the story of the Purple Line will be written and told—somebody is going to write a book,” Raskin said. “It’s a tale of Homeric dimension at this point. It’s like the Iliad and The Odyssey with all the twists and turns. All the great heroes are here …  The heroes of the Purple Line are here. We’re going to make this thing happen. So let’s have every branch of government working together to make it happen now.”

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