2017 | Transportation

State Asks for Ruling in Purple Line Lawsuit

Further delays could have 'devastating effects' on light-rail project, attorney general warns

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A sign marking a future Purple Line station on Connecticut Avenue

Andrew Metcalf

Maryland officials want a federal judge to issue a decision in the long-running Purple Line lawsuit that has delayed the start of construction on the light-rail line for more than four months.

On Friday, Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a motion seeking a ruling in the federal case, noting that it’s been about three months since briefs were filed in the suit that centers on Metro’s safety issues and ridership decline.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the light-rail project’s federal approval in August after agreeing with the plaintiffs in the case—two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—that Metro’s recent issues warranted an examination of what effect, if any, those issues would have on the ridership of the Purple Line. The decision delayed the start of construction on the project, which was set to begin at the end of 2016.

If built, the 16.2-mile light-rail line would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton with 21 stops, including four at Metro stations.

Since the August ruling, federal and Maryland transit administrations have responded in court documents that Metro’s issues wouldn’t impact the goal of the Purple Line—to provide a reliable east-west transit line between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

The request for a speedy ruling comes after Montgomery and Prince George’s elected leaders quizzed project director Charles Lattuca during a briefing Thursday. At the time, Lattuca had few details about the delays or whether the $900 million in federal funds requested for the project were at risk because of wording in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal. Trump’s budget notes only transit projects with full funding grant agreements in place would receive federal funds, but the Purple Line’s funding agreement was never signed after Leon vacated the project’s federal approval.

On Thursday, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner requested the state file a motion seeking a speedy ruling. The next day, the motion was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

In an email, Berliner said he was pleased the state requested a new ruling.

In the latest filing, Frosh asks Leon to issue a ruling as soon as possible and at the very least no later than April 28. If a ruling can’t be issued by then, Frosh asks the judge to restore the federal approval for the project so the state can work on obtaining the full funding grant agreement that includes $900 million in federal funds and begin construction.

“The public interest lies in achieving a definitive resolution of the legal issues raised in this case as promptly as possible, so that the outcome of the case can be decided on the merits—rather than have the outcome determined by default, as continued uncertainty and delay risks threaten the financial viability of the Purple Line project,” Frosh wrote.

Frosh notes that construction delays cost the state an estimated $13 million per month and could cost more than $150 million if the project is delayed more than a year. If delays are lengthy, the state’s private partner—Purple Line Transit Partners, which is responsible for building, operating and maintaining the line under a $5.6 billion, 36-year contract—could terminate its agreement with the state. If the private partner cancels the deal, the state may have to pay up to $100 million in termination costs and risk losing the more than $400 million the state has invested in the project.

Maryland seeks ruling in Purple Line case by AJ Metcalf on Scribd