2017 | Transportation

Judge Rejects Legal Request to Block Tree Cutting for Purple Line

Crews began clearing trees along light-rail route in Silver Spring Monday

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A Purple Line sign on Connecticut Avenue posted near where a station will be

Andrew Metcalf

Tree cutting on the Purple Line could begin this week, as scheduled, after a federal judge on Friday rejected a request from the light-rail line’s opponents to halt tree cutting on the Georgetown Branch Trail.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., found that the plaintiffs—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—failed to meet the strict requirements needed for a temporary injunction.

Tree clearing will begin near Long Branch in Silver Spring Monday and clearing of small trees and undergrowth along the trail will start this week, said Chris Doherty, a spokesman for Purple Line Transit Partners, the state contractor building the project.

Leon wrote in his ruling that the plaintiffs, who were contesting whether the $900 million federal grant agreement was approved properly, failed to assert how blocking the grant would prevent the state from moving forward with construction using its own funds.

Leon said he could rule the grant agreement unlawful and set it aside, but that wouldn’t stop the state from moving forward with tree cutting.

“As a threshold matter, plaintiffs’ claims are plagued by a common problem: There is a mismatch between their legal claims and the injunctive relief they seek,” Leon wrote.

Leon also found the significant overlaps between this case and the plaintiffs’ previous case, which is now in the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., create jurisdictional issues about his ability to rule on it. The Purple Line opponents argued they couldn’t contest the grant agreement until it was signed and therefore this case rested on different grounds than their previous one, now being weighed by the higher court, that focuses on environmental concerns.

Leon disagreed.

“In my judgment, the overlap between this case and the case on appeal is so great that it cautions against granting the requested injunction,” Leon wrote.

He noted that lower courts typically must give deference to higher courts considering a similar case. He wrote that the appeals court already has granted a stay on his previous decision in the other case to vacate the project’s federal approval.

Leon previously called for a new environmental study to determine whether Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues would impact Purple Line ridership.

The appeals court’s stay has allowed Maryland to move forward with construction on the 16.2-mile light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton while the court considers Leon’s other ruling calling for a study. The court is scheduled to hold oral arguments in that case Nov. 1.

In his ruling Friday, Leon wrote that the opponents’ arguments about the state failing to properly fund the existing transportation network before moving forward with the Purple Line “face tough sledding.” He wrote that plaintiffs failed to show that they were injured by Metro’s ridership decline, that their injuries were caused by the federal grant approved for the Purple Line project and that blocking the grant would address those injuries.

However, he didn’t toss the new case completely. Leon wrote at the end of his five-page ruling, “I may ultimately determine that plaintiffs’ case is meritorious as it proceeds through litigation and as additional evidence is put before the court.”