2016 | News

Maryland Attorney General Says 6-Month Purple Line Delay ‘Could Jeopardize’ the Project

Federal judge had floated the idea of forcing the state to do more analysis of light-rail system

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Attorney General Brian Frosh

Maryland’s top lawyer this week told a federal judge that delaying Purple Line construction to analyze how Metro’s recent woes may affect the light-rail system’s ridership “would be profoundly disruptive and could jeopardize” the project.

Attorney General Brian Frosh joined lawyers for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) in filing a supplemental memorandum Wednesday in response to a June 15 hearing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on a lawsuit filed by Chevy Chase residents who want to stop the project.

During the hearing, Judge Richard Leon questioned if a six-month delay to conduct another environmental impact review in light of Metro’s maintenance problems would actually hurt the project.

In another supplemental memorandum, also filed Wednesday, attorneys for the group of Chevy Chase residents who filed the suit trying to at least temporarily halt the Purple Line said they would agree to the six-month delay. They also provided a sample decision for Leon that would order the federal government to vacate its final approval for the Purple Line and require the state to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

MTA and its team of contractors selected to design, build and operate the 16-mile light-rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton expect to start construction late this year and complete it by spring 2022.

In their memorandum, Frosh and the attorneys for the state cited “the complex contractual arrangements involving the project, including the potential for a seemingly modest delay to have cascading consequences on the project schedule and financing arrangements.”

The $5.6 billion, 36-year contract approved by the state earlier this year for the project involves a team of contractors and other companies that are part of the Purple Line Transit Partners. The Purple Line Transit Partners have secured a $875 million loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation and other financing. The $900 million federal contribution for construction of the light-rail is expected to be finalized later this summer.

Frosh, who lives in Somerset, and the attorneys for the state also dismissed the idea the Purple Line should be judged against Metro’s maintenance problems. The Purple Line would be an above-ground light-rail powered by overhead wires and operated by the Purple Line Transit Partners under MTA’s watch.

Metro is an underground and elevated above-ground system powered by a third rail and operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a separate entity.

But the plaintiffs, whose original suit against the federal government in August 2014 focused more on potential environmental issues, argued the state and federal governments must prove declining Metro ridership and increasing maintenance issues won’t impact the Purple Line ridership forecast used in the approved environmental impact statement.

The Purple Line would include stops at and very close to Metro stations in Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and elsewhere. One of the motivations for the long-envisioned project has been to connect the branches of the Metro that extend into Montgomery and Prince George’s counties with a more direct east-to-west route.

“Plaintiffs’ arguments seek to capitalize on the intense public attention and media coverage surrounding the recent Metro service disruptions, without actually showing how those events undermine the basis” for federal approval of the Purple Line, wrote Frosh and the attorneys for the state. “At bottom, Plaintiffs’ arguments rest on little more than a speculative ‘doomsday scenario’ in which the Metro system’s current difficulties are never effectively addressed, even by 2040.”

The lawyers for the state also said the MTA has submitted updated ridership forecasts for 2040 that are now under review by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). There were no notable changes to the previously submitted ridership forecast that projected 74,000 riders a day by 2040, according to the lawyers.

During the June 15 hearing, Leon asked if the parties should enter into a confidentiality agreement so the plaintiffs could review the ridership projection data. The plaintiffs have alleged the government withheld the information because analyzing it requires proprietary software. Frosh and the state’s lawyers argued in the memo this week that a confidentiality agreement won’t be necessary because the data was made available to the plaintiffs almost a year ago.

The state’s lawyers said the MTA gave the plaintiffs the data in July 2015 and instructed them where to find the commercially available software necessary to view the data in September 2015.

The state had previously handed over the data to the Town of Chevy Chase in 2014. While the Town of Chevy Chase isn’t a plaintiff in the case, it did agree to help fund environmental studies by some of the plaintiffs in 2014 and has historically been opposed to the Purple Line.