2017 | Transportation

Judge Denies State’s Request for Stay in Purple Line Lawsuit

Stay would have allowed the state to access federal funds for the light-rail project

share this

Purple Line rendering

via MTA

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday denied Maryland’s request for a stay of his decision to vacate the Purple Line’s federal approval—a ruling that the state expected after a hearing in front of Leon earlier this month.

The state was requesting the stay so it could access part of the $900 million in federal funds budgeted for the project. The state says it needs the money to continue design and pre-construction work while it appeals Leon’s order from last month requiring the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Maryland to conduct a new environmental review of the proposed 16.2- mile light-rail project.

The state has appealed the case to the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., where attorneys representing the state are also asking for a stay to reinstate the project’s federal approval while the appeal is considered in that court.

Leon revoked the project’s federal approval and ordered the environmental analysis after agreeing with the plaintiffs in the case—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—that Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues could impact Purple Line ridership.

In Monday’s opinion, Leon wrote that FTA failed to consider evidence submitted by the plaintiffs in the case, including an analysis from former World Bank economist Frank Lysy that questioned whether service improvements and population growth would increase the number of Metrorail riders.

“Put simply, in the absence of any real analysis of the plaintiffs’ expert declarations, FTA’s bare assertion that it ‘considered and reviewed’ plaintiffs’ submissions here is wholly insufficient,” Leon wrote.

The FTA previously argued that it did take a hard look at Metro’s issues by evaluating five ridership scenarios—including one in which no Metro riders transferred to the Purple Line—and still found the Purple Line would meet its goal to connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties with a reliable east-west transit route.

Attorneys for Maryland had also argued that the state was suffering economic harm due to Leon’s decision. Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn wrote in court documents the state was spending about $13 million per month to fund pre-construction activities for the project and couldn’t continue without the federal money. Rahn suspended key elements of the pre-construction work at the end of May as state funds for the project dwindled. State officials have said it could cost Maryland up to $800 million if the project is cancelled, which could happen if construction is delayed further because of the ongoing lawsuit. Construction was initially scheduled to begin at the end of 2016.

Leon wrote in his opinion that the state bears the blame for the cost issues. Maryland officials shouldn’t have signed a $5.6 billion, 36-year agreement in April 2016 with a private construction partner to build and operate the line while the lawsuit was still pending, he said.

“A stay pending appeal is not intended to inoculate a party against the risks of litigation, nor is it the court’s role to grant emergency relief to protect a party from the consequences of its own fully-informed decisions,” Leon wrote.

He added that a full environmental analysis of the project will determine whether the project remains in the public interest given Metro’s issues.

Attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs debated the case during a June 15 hearing in front of the judge, during which Leon raised similar points as he did in his opinion.

Near the end of the discussion with the judge, Albert Ferlo, the attorney representing Maryland said, “We’d appreciate the decision quickly so we can move on.”

Leon issued his ruling 11 days later. The case now rests with the Court of Appeals.