A federal judge on Wednesday vacated federal government approval of the Purple Line light-rail in a decision that could jeopardize the long-planned project set to start construction later this year.
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon wrote his decision was based solely on how declining Metro ridership and recent Metro safety issues might impact projected ridership for the Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail that’s separate from Metrorail but that would include stations near or at several Metro stations.
A group of Chevy Chase activists who sued the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in an effort to stop the Purple Line based primarily on environmental concerns filed additional claims last fall about how Metro’s recent issues could mean decreased ridership for the light-rail.
The plaintiffs, which include Chevy Chase residents and a nonprofit called Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said the ridership question should require the MTA to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), a detailed study of the preferred Purple Line route in comparison to other alternatives.
The federal government had already approved the MTA’s environmental impact statement for the Purple Line by issuing a Record of Decision, which Leon ordered vacated Wednesday.
“I find that defendants’ failure to adequately consider [Metro’s] ridership and safety issues was arbitrary and capricious, and that these conditions create the ‘seriously different picture’ that warrant an SEIS,” Leon wrote. “While it is true that [Metro] is a distinct entity from MTA, which would own and operate the Purple Line, this does not provide a rational basis for defendants’ summary conclusion that a decline in ridership thereon has no effect on the Purple Line, given that the previous projections estimated over one quarter of Purple Line riders would use the [Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority] Metrorail as part of their trip.”
During a hearing on the lawsuit in June, Leon asked attorneys representing the MTA and FTA about the possibility of delaying the light-rail project for six months to conduct the SEIS.
In court filings after the June hearing, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined MTA attorneys to tell Leon that delaying the project for six months “could jeopardize” it and to further argue why the light-rail project shouldn’t be judged against Metro’s safety and maintenance problems.
The MTA projected the Purple Line would have a daily ridership of 74,000 people by 2040.
Construction on the project is scheduled to start this year and run through 2022. State officials also reportedly scheduled a public event Monday to celebrate the expected signing of a $900 million federal grant to help build the light-rail, which would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
The MTA didn’t have an immediate response to Leon’s ruling, which was published Wednesday afternoon.