UPDATED – 12:45 p.m. – Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon dismissed two remaining counts in the Purple Line lawsuit Tuesday, setting up an appeal of his controversial ruling earlier this month that ordered a new environmental study of the light-rail line.
The ruling Tuesday dismissed counts related to alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The plaintiffs in the long-running case that was first filed in 2014 had alleged that building the Purple Line would endanger the habitats of two species of rare shrimp-like creatures—the Hay’s Spring and Kenk’s amphipods—as well as migratory birds. The plaintiffs are two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
Leon did not elaborate on his decision in the two-page order, but wrote that it will be explained in an opinion “that will follow in the near future.” The plaintiffs had attempted to find evidence of the rare amphipods in springs along the light-rail’s planned route, but were not able to locate any of the creatures. The Hay's Spring amphipod is classified as an endangered species, while the Kenk's is a candidate for the protective classification.
The ruling is likely to pave the way for the Federal Transit Administration and Maryland to appeal the judge’s May 22 ruling, in which Leon ordered that the FTA conduct a new supplemental environmental impact statement for the project after finding that Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues could negatively impact the Purple Line's ridership. That study could take several months.
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday the state plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The state and transit agency have argued that Metro’s issues aren’t significant enough to warrant additional review of the 16.2-mile Purple Line that is planned to connect Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
Gov. Larry Hogan and state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn have both said the state plans to use all legal options available to contest Leon’s earlier ruling, which has stalled the project. However, Leon's previous partial ruling prevented the state from immediately appealing that order.
Leon’s updated ruling Tuesday notes at the end, “This is a final, appealable order.”
Leon’s earlier rulings—including an August decision that vacated the project’s federal approval—have prevented the state from securing the $900 million in federal funds needed to construct the project. The line is estimated to cost more than $2 billion to build and a total of $5.6 billion under the 36-year contract state leaders signed with Purple Line Transit Partners, the private team of construction and finance companies that the state chose to build, operate and maintain the project.
"We were very encouraged by today’s U.S. District Court ruling dismissing most of the plaintiffs’ claims against the Purple Line, and will continue working with our partners at the MTA as they evaluate next steps in the process," Purple Line Transit Partners said in a statement Tuesday.
The pro-Purple Line group Action Committee for Transit also issued a statement reacting to Tuesday's ruling, "We are pleased that the deeply flawed court order can now be appealed. We look forward to justice being done so that the Purple Line goes forward and the will of the people prevails over the obstruction of a privileged few."
The state has noted in court filings that it may have to suspend pre-construction activities by June 1 as state funds for the project dwindle. Rahn said the state is spending about $13 million per month on the project and could lose up to $800 million if the project is canceled because of an extended delay. Mike Madden, the state’s deputy project director for the Purple Line, told Bethesda Beat last week that he’s not aware of a plan to wind down pre-construction operations if the legal battle continues.
Leon had waited about five months to issue updated rulings in the case despite having the relevant information. Leon wrote in his May 22 ruling that the delay was due to a heavy caseload. The new rulings came shortly after the state filed a request for a writ of mandamus to attempt to have the U.S. Court of Appeals force Leon to issue updated orders in the case.