2017 | Transportation

Federal Judge Tosses Final Issues Before Him in Purple Line Case

Plaintiffs fail to get new ruling on noise and environmental issues; case continues in Court of Appeals

A Purple Line sign posted on Connecticut Avenue

Andrew Metcalf

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that he will not reconsider the Purple Line’s potential effects on air and noise pollution, after previously deciding the Federal Transit Administration and Maryland properly studied them.

The plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—asked the judge in June to clarify his May ruling, in which he found the project did not violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or the Endangered Species Act, as well as most requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In particular, they wanted him to more comprehensively address noise and pollution issues they raised in previous motions.

In an opinion published Tuesday, Leon wrote that the plaintiffs raised a voluminous number of alleged NEPA violations and he ruled against the plaintiffs each time. The exception was for problems related to Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues, which caused Leon to revoke the project’s federal approval in August and later order a new environmental study to examine the issues.

“Given the sheer number of claims plaintiffs raised in their summary judgment pleadings, the court’s concise treatment of their NEPA-related claims was neither inappropriate nor unusual, and courts regularly reject parties’ claims with less explanation than was included in the opinion,” Leon wrote.

Leon noted in the new ruling that he was trying to be brief in explaining his ruling and he declined “to address each asserted deficiency in minute detail.”

The judge’s latest ruling was issued Monday and published online on Tuesday. It clears the way for the U.S. Court of Appeals to weigh Leon’s previous ruling that the FTA and Maryland conduct a new environmental study of how Metro’s issues would impact the Purple Line.

If that ruling stands, it would further delay construction on the project, but supporters were buoyed by last month’s appeals court decision. Three appellate court judges restored the project’s federal approval in a terse ruling last month. That granted the state and FTA a stay of Leon’s decision to vacate the project’s federal approval. State officials can now pursue federal money for the project because its underlying federal environmental approval was reinstated.

Neither state nor federal officials have said if or when the project’s full funding grant agreement will be signed. The grant agreement allows the state access to $900 million in federal funds proposed for the project, which state transportation officials have said are needed to pay for the light-rail line’s $2 billion construction cost.

Since the Court of Appeals ruling, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail has urged its supporters to contact the federal Department of Transportation and members of Congress to explain why they believe the project doesn’t deserve the federal money.

The Appeals court could side with Leon in his previous ruling about Metro’s issues and call for the environmental study after it reviews Leon’s ruling. Purple Line supporters believe that’s unlikely since the judge granted the stay and reinstated the project’s federal approval.

A legal expert and local officials have questioned Leon’s ruling because they believe Leon substituted his judgment with that of the FTA’s expert analysis, which previously found Metro’s problems wouldn’t significantly impact  Purple Line ridership.

Leon also denied the plaintiffs’ motion to enforce his ruling that FTA study Metro’s issues because the ruling is being appealed and his court no longer has jurisdiction over the matter.

Last year, Maryland signed a $5.6 billion, 36-year agreement with Purple Line Transit Partners, a private team of finance and construction companies, which is tasked with building, operating and maintaining the transit system. Construction on the project was scheduled to start late last year, but has been delayed due to the lawsuit.

Judge Leon opinion on motion to reconsider by AJ Metcalf on Scribd