The trail advocacy group that has lobbied against construction of the Purple Line for years and spearheaded a federal lawsuit that has delayed the light-rail project is now taking its fight directly to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
In a letter to supporters sent via email Tuesday, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail called on the project’s opponents to contact the federal Department of Transportation as well as members of Congress to explain why they believe the Purple Line doesn’t deserve federal support.
The call to action comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., issued a ruling that restored the Purple Line’s federal approval last week. The ruling will allow Maryland to pursue an agreement with the transportation department to secure $900 million in federal funds proposed for the project.
Ultimately, Chao will be responsible for signing off on the agreement.
The appeals court ruling struck down a part of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s earlier ruling in the lawsuit that vacated the project’s federal approval. The appeals court granted a stay, which restored the project’s federal approval, but has yet to issue an opinion on Leon’s ruling regarding Metro’s issues.
The plaintiffs had argued and Leon agreed that Metro’s ridership decline and safety problems could impact ridership on the Purple Line and so a new environmental review of the project’s feasibility was warranted. Both Maryland and the Federal Transit Administration had appealed Leon’s ruling that further environmental study was needed.
“The Court of Appeals shook our faith in the legal system by reinstating the Record of Decision for the Purple Line with virtually no explanation,” said the letter from the trail group, which was signed by President Ajay Bhatt.
The court’s three judges found the state “satisfied the stringent requirements” needed to reinstate the project’s federal approval.
Maryland’s attorneys had previously argued that further construction delays resulting from the lawsuit could put the light-rail project in jeopardy and lead to the state losing about $800 million in funds it has already spent plus fees for canceling its $5.6 billion contract with Purple Line Transit Partners, the private team of finance and construction companies that will build, operate and maintain the 16.2-mile light-rail line.
After the appeals court ruling, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said state leaders will work with the federal transportation department to get the funding agreement signed. Maryland plans to use the federal funds to pay for about half of the project’s $2 billion construction cost. The state was five days away from securing the grant agreement in August when Leon vacated the project’s federal approval.
A Maryland transportation department spokesperson did not immediately respond Tuesday morning to a request for more information about the timeline for signing the grant agreement.
Gov. Larry Hogan met with Chao in March to discuss the state’s need for federal funding for the Purple Line project. The Trump administration said federal funding was still being considered for the project in budget documents released in May while Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen have said they will work to secure the funding.
In its letter, the trail group said the project’s high cost and its potential to siphon away funds from other needed transit improvements such as fixing Metro were reasons why Chao shouldn’t support the Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda along an east-west route to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
The group noted that despite the legal setback, it remains hopeful that the part of Leon’s ruling concerning Metro’s issues may stand after further review by the appeals court. The plaintiffs are also pressing for Leon to rule on outstanding issues concerning air and noise pollution. The group believes he could vacate the project’s federal approval again if he finds these issues significant.
“The legal case continues in both courts and we are weighing all options,” the letter said. “Stay tuned for more legal developments over the next several weeks, even as action now centers on the [federal transportation department] and whether Secretary Chao decides not to sign a full funding grant agreement.”
Update – 1:45 p.m. – Maryland U.S. Reps. Steny Hoyer, Anthony Brown, Jamie Raskin, John Delaney and John Sarbanes as well as Sens. Cardin and Van Hollen sent the following letter to the Federal Transit Administration on Tuesday urging the agency to move forward with the full funding grant agreement: