A Purple Line sign near Connecticut Avenue Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Three federal appellate judges on Wednesday attempted to wade through arguments about whether Metro’s ridership decline and safety problems warrant a new environmental study of the Purple Line project.

Eric Glitzenstein, an attorney for the Purple Line opponents, argued that the federal government and Maryland have failed to properly examine Metro’s problems. Thus, he said, a new study is needed to determine whether a different transit alternative—such as a bus line—would have less environmental impact than light rail.

Attorneys for the federal government and Maryland said transit agencies properly examined different alternatives to light rail in the original environmental impact statement, which was completed in 2013, and Metro’s problems weren’t significant enough to warrant a new study.

Kevin McArdle, an attorney for the federal government, noted that Maryland and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) studied the impact that Metro’s problems would have on Purple Line ridership last year. They determined that even if no riders transferred to the Purple Line from Metro, the Purple Line would meet its purpose.

Maryland has stated that the project’s three-part purpose is to provide faster, more reliable east-west transit service between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties; improve connectivity between the communities in the corridor; and provide better connections to Metrorail services.

“No one has really entertained the possibility that Metro ceases to exist,” Albert Ferlo, an attorney representing Maryland, said.

During the oral arguments, which lasted a little over an hour, the judges—Merrick Garland, Judith Rogers and Sri Srinivasan—repeatedly asked questions to attorneys whether the light-rail alternative met the project’s purpose.

The judges also questioned how Metro’s problems would change the expected environmental impact of the light-rail line so much that a new analysis would be needed.

The hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., was the latest proceeding in the ongoing lawsuit against the project. Purple Line opponents—Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua, as well as the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—filed the suit in 2014.

The plaintiffs allege that the federal government and Maryland violated the National Environmental Protection Act by not properly studying how Metro’s problems would affect ridership on the Purple Line and if those impacts could warrant a different, less environmentally harmful alternative to meet the project’s goals.

Fitzgerald said outside the courtroom Wednesday that if the plaintiffs prevail, he hopes the court would halt work on any part of the project that harms the environment and explore whether an alternative system, such as buses, could replace the light-rail project.

Construction is now taking place along the length of the route, which stretches from Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. The work includes tree cutting on the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The plaintiffs won a court victory this year when federal District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that Metro’s problems warranted a new supplemental environmental study of the project.

However, the state and federal government immediately appealed that decision. They had their own victory when the appeals court judges granted a stay in the case in August, which enabled construction to begin on the 16.2-mile project.

The appellate judges are weighing whether to uphold the District Court’s earlier ruling to conduct a new supplemental environmental impact statement or overturn the ruling and allow the project to proceed without a new analysis.

After oral arguments concluded on Wednesday, Garland said the judges would take the arguments under advisement and issue a ruling at a later point in time.

It wasn’t clear based on the judges’ questions how they would rule.

Garland raised a hypothetical situation early in the arguments: If ridership figures for the project have significantly changed due to Metro’s problems, would that warrant an examination about whether buses could handle the transit demand rather than light rail and affect the environment less?

McArdle responded that the project’s footprint—its route along the trail and roadways—would remain the same whether buses or trains were used and thus wouldn’t significantly change the impact to the environment.

Ferlo, the attorney representing Maryland, acknowledged that courts have ruled in the past that if circumstances changed so significantly that new developments undercut the purpose of the project, a new environmental study would be warranted.

However, he said, in this case, the light-rail alternative still would best meet the project’s three-pronged purpose and need.

The Purple Line will connect with Metro stations at four of its 21 stations—Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.

Glitzenstein keyed in on Ferlo’s comments about significant changes to the project needing a new analysis. He noted that the state and FTA failed to analyze the change in potential ridership or environmental impact of other transit alternatives when it examined Metro’s problems on the light-rail alternative last year.

Rogers said Glitzenstein’s argument depended on a “number of assumptions.” She noted the federal government, in its original environmental impact statement for the project, studied other alternatives.

Rogers later said that ordering a new environmental study would require significant new information that hasn’t been adequately addressed in previous studies.

Srinivasan pointed out that if ridership declines significantly on Metro, either light rail or bus ridership along a similar route also would decline.

McArdle said the decline in Metro ridership doesn’t change the original review of other alternatives “at all.”

Glitzenstein also argued that the state and federal government failed to adequately address questions about ridership figures that an expert for the plaintiffs raised. He said Maryland and the FTA used a higher baseline ridership figure—around 70,000 weekday riders by 2040—to study Metro’s impact on the light-rail line than the approximately 56,000 baseline ridership figure FTA used in a previous study.

He said this raises questions about the data the state and FTA used to support their decision that a new environmental study is not needed.

He also posited that the Purple Line would take ridership away from Metro, as riders traveling between New Carrollton, College Park, Silver Spring and Bethesda who may have previously used Metro will switch to the more direct Purple Line.

Garland expressed skepticism about this argument. He said one of the strongest “environmental justice” arguments in favor of the light-rail alternative is that it will provide an easier connection for people in Prince George’s County to work in Montgomery County—a route that’s now lengthy to navigate on Metro due to its U-shaped path through D.C.

Ferlo said the population along the route is expected to increase over the next 60 years, which will increase the need for the light-rail project.

The case that the appellate court is weighing is different from a second case filed by the same Purple Line opponents in U.S. District Court in D.C. in September. That case challenges whether the federal government properly awarded a $900 million grant to help fund the project’s estimated $2 billion construction cost.

Greg Sanders, vice president of the transit advocacy group Purple Line, who was in the courtroom Wednesday, said he was hopeful after listening to the oral arguments.

“I am pleased,” Sanders said. “I think Judge Rogers got to the key point—Maryland has done a thorough analysis of these questions.”

He believes the judges understood that “[the Purple Line] will create east-west connectivity and it will get people from residential areas to job centers, particularly in underserved communities in Prince George’s.”

After the hearing, Fitzgerald keyed in on the judges’ discussion about whether all three aspects of the purpose and need were met by the light-rail alternative. He said Metro’s problems call into question whether the Purple Line light rail will provide better connections to Metrorail.

“It’s important to build accurate ridership numbers to understand what your options are to choose to meet that ridership demand,” Fitzgerald said. “For example, if ridership is declining on Metro and the need for transit in this area is declining for a number of factors—telecommuting, what have you—then you need to go back to the drawing board both for analyzing the alternatives and for meeting the federal grant [requirements].”