Updated – 6:25 p.m. – The U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday restored federal approval of the Purple Line project, clearing the way for construction to begin on the light-rail line.
Three judges of the Washington, D.C., court ruled in an appeal filed in an ongoing lawsuit that Maryland has “satisfied the stringent requirements” required for the court to grant a stay of U.S. District Judge Richard Leon’s August ruling. That ruling revoked the project’s federal Record of Decision, which is the federal environmental approval needed for the project to move forward.
Maryland officials have said vacating the project’s federal approval has prevented the state from signing a full funding grant agreement with the U.S. government. Signing the agreement would allow the state access to the $900 million in federal funds proposed for the light-rail line’s construction.
The appeals court ruling "will allow construction to commence and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to keep the Purple Line moving forward,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh tweeted Wednesday.
"Today's ruling is good news," Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said in a statement provided to Bethesda Beat. "We will be working with the [U.S. Department of Transportation] to move a full funding grant agreement forward. We appreciate the U.S. Court of Appeals' expeditious action."
In late May, Leon sided with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit—the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and two Town of Chevy Chase residents—that Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues could impact the success of the Purple Line. Leon ordered the Federal Transit Administration to undertake a new environmental study to examine the issue.
After Leon’s ruling, Maryland appealed his decision to the appeals court. In their ruling, the appeals court judges noted that Leon’s ruling “had the direct and intended effect of preventing the use of federal funds and halting the project.”
Chevy Chase resident John Fitzgerald, an attorney and plaintiff in the lawsuit that was filed in 2014, described the ruling as "unusual" in an interview with Bethesda Beat on Wednesday evening.
"We have a strong case, we think," Fitzgerald said. "We would like to see the court explain its ruling."
Fitzgerald said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao must now weigh the merits of the Purple Line project to determine if it deserves federal funding and meets the requirements of the federal Highway Act.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail described the light-rail line's ridership projections as "implausible" and called the court's ruling "disappointing."
The group stated the project doesn't "meet the cost-effectiveness per rider, congestion relief, environmental benefits … and other criteria in federal transportation law."
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner said Wednesday the ruling clears the way for the state to pursue the federal funding.
“It’s a stunning rebuke of Judge Leon,” Berliner said about the decision. “One that many of us predicted because he had so overreached, he had so abused his limited authority. The court is signaling it’s leaning heavily in favor of the state of Maryland in this litigation.”
The appeals court order noted it was granting the stay pending the results of Maryland’s appeal, so the stay could be revoked if the court upholds Leon’s previous rulings in the case.
The appeals court also denied a motion from the plaintiffs to dismiss the case. And the judges encouraged Leon to rule on a few outstanding issues raised by the plaintiffs after his May ruling. Leon’s ruling on those issues will enable the appeals court to proceed with reviewing the merits of the state's appeal.
Greg Sanders, vice president of the transit advocacy group Purple Line Now, said the group is “overjoyed” by the ruling.
“We were put on hold 11 months ago,” Sanders said. “We’ve been saying the entire time that this was illogical, unprecedented and it looks like the Court of Appeals finds there’s a very good chance they agree.”
A legal expert and Montgomery County elected officials previously questioned Leon’s ruling, saying he violated long-standing legal precedent by supplanting the expert judgment of the Federal Transit Administration with his own. The FTA previously wrote in court documents that even if Metro didn’t exist, the Purple Line would still achieve its primary goal of improving east-west transit access between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Leon’s ruling has stalled construction on the Purple Line, which was scheduled to begin late last year. If built, it will connect Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County along a 16.2-mile route.
After news of the ruling spread, reactions were posted on Twitter:
— Anthony G. Brown (@RepAnthonyBrown) July 19, 2017
US appeals court ruling on Purple Line is a victory for transit & economic growth of region, connecting #UMD to all of greater Washington
— Wallace D. Loh (@presidentloh) July 19, 2017
— ActionCmteForTransit (@actfortransit) July 19, 2017