Purple Line opponents said Monday they plan to file a court motion in their ongoing lawsuit in federal court against construction of the light-rail line to try to prevent the closure of the Georgetown Branch Trail.
The latest planned legal maneuver comes after the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a plaintiff in the case, held a rally Monday in Bethesda’s Elm Street Park to protest the state’s plan to close the trail Tuesday to begin Purple Line construction.
About 200 people attended the event, according to the group’s president Ajay Bhatt.
“People are livid and very worried about trees coming down,” Bhatt said Tuesday. “Especially when this thing hasn’t had its day in court.”
On Tuesday morning, crews erected orange blockades at some of the trail’s entrance points in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring that said “trail closed.”
— TOCC Tweets (@chevychase_mmf) September 5, 2017
The group has netted more than 2,000 signatures since starting an online petition five days ago to oppose the trail’s closure and construction crews cutting down trees or moving forward with “any other irreversible harm” until the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., issues a final ruling in the lawsuit.
The Maryland Transit Administration announced on its Purple Line website Tuesday it would close the approximately 3.5-mile trail this week to begin construction on the line. Once built, the light-rail line will travel between Silver Spring and Bethesda on the trail right-of-way. The trail is expected to be closed for four to five years. Crews also will build a new paved trail next to the Purple Line as part of the construction process.
The lawsuit has made its way to the appeals court after first being filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in 2014. State officials had appealed District Court Judge Richard Leon’s call for a new environmental analysis for the project to determine the impact of Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues on the Purple Line’s projected ridership. Leon also had revoked the project’s federal approval in August 2016.
The appeals court reinstated the project’s federal approval in July, enabling construction to move forward as it weighs whether to require the new analysis. Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao broke ground on the Purple Line on Aug. 28 after the two signed an agreement to grant $900 million in federal funds for the project’s construction.
Bhatt said the plaintiffs will file the motion to prevent tree cutting on the trail Tuesday and its full brief in the case Friday.
“We’re hoping whateve judge looks at it will understand that cutting 80-year-old trees is irreparable harm and the Court of Appeals should be able to hear the case,” Bhatt said.
Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail President Ajay Bhatt (center) with Georgetown Branch Trail supporters at the event Monday. Credit: Alan Bowser – provided photo
After the state announced the trail’s closure, controversy immediately erupted over the county’s alternate trail route that guides cyclists and hikers along busy Jones Bridge Road between Bethesda and Silver Spring. County transportation officials said they tried to negotiate with the Town of Chevy Chase to route the alternate trail through the town, but town officials raised several issues and negotiations stalled.
Mayor Mary Flynn said Friday the town is working with county transportation officials to coordinate schedules for public discussion to negotiate a route through the town and hopes to reach an agreement this month.
The town on Sunday also sent a letter to the state that contends Purple Line Transit Partners, the team of construction companies the state partnered with to build the 16.2-mile light-rail line, is violating notification requirements in its contract with the state to build the project.
The letter says written notification of the start of work in an area is required 30 days in advance.
“None of the government authorities we spoke to at the municipal, county or state level were properly notified, nor principals of [Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School], Westland Middle School and Silver Creek Middle School, all of whom have students who use the trail,” the letter says. “Coinciding the trail closure with the first day of school without proper written notification is thus creating dangerous situations, not mitigating them.”
The letter also alleges the state is rushing to close the trail and begin construction as part of a “political maneuver meant to defeat the private federal lawsuit by fait accompli.”
Two Montgomery County Council members also expressed concern about the rapid closure of the trail in a letter sent Thursday to the state transportation department. Council President Roger Berliner and council member Tom Hucker wrote the state and county must do more to ensure alternative routes are safe and questioned whether all of the trail needed to be closed immediately.
Supporters of the Purple Line responded to concerns about the rapid trail closure by noting the lawsuit has delayed the start of construction for more than nine months, which resulted in the accelerated construction schedule.
“We have been hearing a range of questions from our members about the construction process, seeking explanation about the extent of the closure and information about when construction may affect their neighborhoods or business districts,” the Purple Line advocacy group Purple Line Now wrote in a press release. “The challenges and confusion resulting from lawsuit-induced delays also highlights the need for official mechanisms for coordinating between citizens, Maryland and [Purple Line Transit Partners].”
Other routes to navigate around the trail closure have been posted by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, including routes through the Town of Chevy Chase. In a post on the group’s website, communications director Colin Browne wrote “it’s perfectly legal to ride on Chevy Chase’s neighborhood streets.” He also wrote the group is working with the Town of Chevy Chase and the county to improve the detour route along Jones Bridge Road.