Maryland Asks Court of Appeals to Reinstate Federal Approval for Purple Line

The state is asking the court to reverse a previous ruling that blocked federal funds for the light-rail project


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Purple Line rendering via MTA

Maryland is pushing forward with its appeal of federal Judge Richard Leon’s decision to call for a new environmental study of the Purple Line.

On Wednesday, the state asked the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to provide a stay of Leon’s August decision to vacate the project’s federal approval while it appeals his other ruling calling for the new study.

Attorneys for the state wrote that Leon’s decision has put the project in peril by not allowing Maryland to access the $900 million in federal funds set to be allocated for the 16.2 mile light-rail.

“If not stayed or reversed before August 1, 2017, that order could cause the state to cancel the project, resulting in a financial loss to the state of approximately $800 million,” the attorneys wrote.

Leon vacated the project’s federal approval after siding with the plaintiffs in the case—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail group—that Metro’s safety issues and ridership decline could result in lower ridership on the Purple Line. In May, Leon ordered the state and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to conduct a new supplemental environmental impact statement for the project to determine how Metro’s issues would affect the Purple Line. Leon suggested last week during a hearing at U.S. District Court in D.C. that the study may find there’s a more cost-effective alternative to the Purple Line.

The state is hoping the appeals court will grant a stay so it can use the federal funds to continue design work and possibly start construction on the project. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn last month suspended key engineering work on the Purple Line after state officials determined Maryland couldn’t continue to fund the project, which was costing about $13 million per month, without the federal money.

"After decades of review and public involvement, holding the Congressionally appropriated funds hostage is not fair to the taxpayers of Maryland," Rahn said in a statement Wednesday. "We are asking the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to expeditiously grant our stay, opening the door for federal funding."

If built the Purple Line would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.

State attorneys wrote in the appeals filing that they believe Leon’s order for the new study will be overturned on appeal because Maryland and the FTA took a “hard look” at Metro’s issues and determined they wouldn’t have a significant impact on Purple Line ridership or alter the environmental effects of building the light-rail line. The federal government gave its approval to the project in 2014, just before Metro’s issues began in earnest.

The state notes in the filing that the Supreme Court has ruled that requiring a new environmental study every time a new issue comes to light would grind agency decision making to a halt. It would in effect require agencies to await “updated information only to find the new information outdated by the time a decision is made,” according to the filing.

The stay request also notes that failing to reinstate the federal approval for the project could prevent the Court of Appeals from weighing in on it, because the project may need to be cancelled before it can do so.

“The harms from [Leon’s] order would include a loss of the project’s benefits: replacing eight bridges, completing the Capital Crescent Trail and, most importantly, providing citizens of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties with quick and sure access via public transportation to jobs, educational opportunities and cultural opportunities,” the filing states.

State attorneys also faulted Leon for taking more than five months to rule in the case after receiving the information from the FTA about Metro’s impact on the Purple Line. The state also took issue with Leon not setting a timeline to write his opinion on the state’s other request for a stay on his ruling to vacate the project’s federal approval, which was discussed during the hearing last week in his court.

Leon told an attorney representing Maryland during that hearing that the state has itself to blame for putting the project at risk because state leaders signed a $5.6 billion, 36-year contract with Purple Line Transit Partners to build and operate the project while the lawsuit was still pending in his court. The attorney representing the state later said he wasn’t hopeful Leon would issue a favorable ruling for Maryland.

In the new appeals court filing, the state’s attorneys wrote that granting the stay would allow the project to “remain alive while this litigation is finally decided in this court.”

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