2017 | Transportation

State Warns of Dire Consequences if Pending Issues in Purple Line Case Are Not Resolved Quickly

Maryland Attorney General says judge needs to rule on the outstanding issues

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via MTA

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh pushed forward with a legal maneuver to attempt to force the federal D.C. District Court judge to issue rulings on the remaining outstanding issues in the Purple Line case Thursday.

The state is attempting to have the federal Court of Appeals in D.C. grant a writ of mandamus to force Judge Richard Leon to rule on about two dozen outstanding environmental issues in the case..

On Monday, Leon ordered the Federal Transit Administration to conduct a new environmental review of the proposed 16.2-mile light-rail project designed to connect Bethesda with New Carrollton after finding the agency failed to adequately address how declining ridership and safety issues on Metro would impact the project.

Leon wrote in his opinion that he would issue a ruling “in a few weeks” on the other issues in the case. Leon also previously vacated the project’s federal approval, which has prevented the state from securing the $900 million in federal funds needed to start construction.

The state’s lawyers wrote in the filing Thursday signed by Frosh that the state is not confident in the judge’s timeline and that the “piecemeal” ruling prevents the state from seeking a comprehensive appeal of Leon’s decision.

“While the state is confident it can prevail in this court on that single issue if given an opportunity to address the merits of the district court’s decision, the continued lack of a final decision on all remaining issues—and uncertainty about when that decision will be issued—leaves the state without an opportunity to seek timely appellate review of an adverse court decision, while each passing week increases the project’s costs and the potential for project cancellation,” the filing says.

Gov. Larry Hogan and state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn both said after Leon’s ruling was issued that the state would pursue all legal options to challenge the judge’s ruling.

The state warned that “on or shortly after June 1” the state will begin the process of shutting down ongoing pre-construction activities, which have been underway since June. Rahn noted in a previous court filing that within 60 days after activities are suspended “a decision to cancel the project could occur.”

It’s not clear at this time if the state has a plan to wind down pre-construction activities. Mike Madden, the Purple Line’s deputy project director for the Maryland Transit Administration, told Bethesda Beat Wednesday night that he’s not aware of any such plan.

Purple Line Transit Partners, the private team of construction and finance companies that partnered with the state to build and operate the light-rail line, has about 700 staff members working on the project in Maryland and elsewhere. Rob Chappel, the CEO of the team, said Wednesday the companies remain committed to building the project, despite the legal delays.

The plaintiffs in the case—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—wrote in a court filing submitted to the Court of Appeals Tuesday that the state’s appeal for the writ of mandamus is moot because of Leon’s Monday ruling.

The state disputed this assertion by saying the judge still needs to rule on the other issues, which the state noted had been fully briefed in Leon’s court for more than a year.

The state’s lawyers wrote that once Leon rules the state has three paths for the project to move past the legal delays:

  • Seek a petition for emergency relief to reinstate the project’s federal approval;
  • Undertake the additional environmental review ordered by Leon (which could take several months); or
  • Decide to cancel the project

The plaintiffs also claimed the problems the state faces due to Leon’s ruling are “self-inflicted” because the state chose to sign the $5.6 billion, 36-year contract with Purple Line Transit Partners while the litigation was pending in federal district court. The lawsuit was first filed in 2014.

The state shot back that the problems are not self-inflicted, but rather “will arise out of a lack of a timely decision by a court in a case brought by a small group of people who oppose a project that will be located near their residences.” And continued in the filing, “The state had no obligation to halt efforts to make this long-planned and much needed transportation facility a reality for its citizens simply because a lawsuit was filed.”

A history of the Purple Line on display at a Purple Line Transit Partners open house on Wednesday evening in Silver Spring.

Maryland Response in Writ of Mandamus Case 5-25-17 by AJ Metcalf on Scribd