Photo: Charles Lattuca, seated right, the Maryland Transit Administration's executive director of transit development, testifies in front of Prince George's and Montgomery County Council members at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters in Laurel on March 30.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner urged the state on Thursday to push for an expedited ruling by a federal judge in a longstanding lawsuit that has delayed the start of construction of the long-planned Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Berliner told the state’s Purple Line project director Charles Lattuca that county leaders believed that state and federal transit officials had provided U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon with the information he needed to issue a ruling and further delay would only hurt the project.
“We need to make it clear we need a ruling from the judge,” Berliner told Lattucca during Thursday’s joint meeting of the transportation committees of the councils of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s headquarters in Laurel. “My perspective is we have satisfied the judge’s ruling.”
Lattuca said the state’s attorneys are reviewing their options and have not decided whether to ask for an expedited ruling.
Lattuca’s response and others he gave frustrated local leaders as they pushed for answers about the future of the Purple Line—which now may face a new barrier erected by the Trump administration.
Construction of the light-rail line, set to begin at the end of 2016, was delayed after Leon revoked the project’s federal approval in August over concerns about Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues raised in the lawsuit. The judge’s ruling came down days before state officials were scheduled to sign the full funding agreement to allocate $900 million in federal funds for the project and the agreement has still not been signed.
The lawsuit was brought by two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, which hope to turn the Georgetown Branch Trail where the Purple Line will run between Silver Spring and Bethesda into a park.
Other than procedural documents, no new motions have been filed in the case since mid-January, according to online federal court filings. Berliner said a request for an expedited ruling seemed warranted after such a long delay.
“It would simply say to the judge we have a lot on the line here, you should have the basis now to make a judgment and the public interest would be served by an expedited ruling,” Berliner said.
Berliner said he believes the judge’s questions about Metro were satisfied by December court filings in which the federal and Maryland transit administrations said the Purple Line would achieve its goal of providing a reliable transit system between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties even if Metro didn’t exist.
He also said the state needs to move past the lawsuit and on to discussions with President Donald Trump’s administration about the full funding grant agreement.
Trump’s proposed budget released earlier this month said that only transit projects with signed full funding grant agreements would receive federal funds—a stipulation that would appear to not include the Purple Line.
Lattuca said many other transportation projects around the country would be “caught up” in the federal budget if that stipulation were to be approved by Congress. However, he said that’s unlikely.
“This [transit funding] program has been cut before by previous administrations and Congress has always reinstated it,” Lattuca said. “It’s a very popular program and we are going to hope that money gets reinstated again.”
The council members also pushed Lattuca for information about whether Gov. Larry Hogan has lobbied federal officials concerning the project.
Lattuca said Hogan met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last week and mentioned the Purple Line during the meeting.
Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras said she thought the Purple Line was treated as an “afterthought” in the meeting with Chao, noting that Hogan’s initial transportation wish list sent to the National Governors Association did not include the Purple Line.
Lattuca said that wish list was sent March 7—before Trump’s budget outline was released—and only included unfunded projects being pursued by the state.
Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker questioned Lattuca about what the governor and state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who was also present, said while meeting with Chao.
“I did not hear what they said,” Lattuca responded. “All I know is they asked for their help … I do not know what [Chao] said in response to the governor or secretary.”
“Have you asked the governor?” Hucker asked.
“I have not spoken to governor,” Lattuca replied.
“Can you ask the governor?” Hucker said. “Have you asked Secretary Rahn?”
“I have not asked Secretary Rahn,” Lattuca responded. “Secretary Rahn said they had a meeting and you know, that was it.”
“I find that amazing,” Hucker said. “You’re the top guy. This is your job. If I were the top guy on this project I would want to know if I had a job or not, right? So I would be asking my boss ‘Hey what happened in that meeting?’ ”
Hucker also called Leon’s decision a “profoundly reckless” one that has upended decades of bipartisan planning.
“For the judge to substitute his judgment for the judgment of the agencies that are charged with protecting the public’s interest and all their elected officials is profoundly unethical,” Hucker said. “I find it hard to believe that’s all you know about the meeting, but I urge you to get Secretary Rahn on the phone to find out more.”
Lattuca later said the state does not have a backup plan if the judge were to issue an unfavorable decision about the project.
“We’re all frustrated and unfortunately waiting for the judge’s decision,” Prince George’s County Council member Todd Turner said, adding it was equally frustrating that Trump’s budget, if approved, could block federal funding for the Purple Line.
Despite the delays, Lattuca said state officials hope Purple Line Transit Partners, the private partner designing, building and maintaining the project, can start construction this spring and have trains running by 2022. Last year, the state signed a 36-year, $5.6 billion agreement with Purple Line Transit Partners to build and operate the Purple Line.