Federal Transit Administration Asks Judge to Alter Purple Line Ruling

State says delaying light-rail project could cost more than $13 million per month

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via Maryland Transit Administration

Attorneys for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) responded to a federal judge’s order to reevaluate the Purple Line light-rail project by saying the judge erred in citing Metro safety issues to vacate the project’s federal approval.

Instead, the attorneys said in a court motion the FTA should have evaluated whether Metro’s issues would warrant a new environmental study rather than being ordered by the judge to conduct a new study.

The motion, filed Tuesday at the U.S. District Court in D.C., asked that that the court “correct clear error and prevent manifest injustice.”

“The court impermissibly substituted its judgment for that of FTA in making the ultimate finding that the information on WMATA Metrorail’s issues presents a significant environmental impact warranting an [environmental study],” the motion says.

The motion to alter the court’s ruling comes after District Court Judge Richard Leon ordered on Aug. 3 a new federal study of the Purple Line while citing Metro’s ridership and safety issues. In the ruling, Leon vacated the federal government’s previous approval of the project, known as the Record of Decision, a move that has delayed the federal government from providing the full $900 million it has committed to the project.

The plaintiffs in the case, which include Chevy Chase residents and a nonprofit called Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, argued that Metro’s woes and questionable ridership figures warranted a new environmental assessment.

FTA’s attorneys wrote in the motion that vacating the Record of Decision was also an error—saying instead that the approval should have remained in effect while the study was conducted. The motion also contends that public interest in the project should have been considered before vacating the federal government’s approval.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh also filed a memorandum in support of the FTA Tuesday, saying that delaying construction on the project would cost “likely in excess of $13 million per month.”

“An extended delay could result in cancellation of the project altogether, which would deprive the State’s residents of the substantial benefits of the Purple Line, cause the loss of all state funds invested to date, and trigger additional financial obligations under a Public-Private Partnership (P3) Agreement,” the memo from Frosh notes.

Earlier this year, the state signed a $5.6 billion, 30-year agreement with Purple Line Transit Partners to finance, build, operate and maintain the 16.2-mile light-rail project.

In the memo, Frosh argues that FTA should have been given the opportunity to evaluate whether Metro’s problems would affect the Purple Line, given that those problems were publicized after FTA had already made its decision on the Purple Line. The attorney general adds that, given more time, the FTA could show evidence that Metro ridership will rebound or if it doesn’t, it may not effect Purple Line ridership. The memo also notes “that substantially lower ridership on the Purple Line, even if it were to occur, would not increase the project’s environmental impacts.”

The memo concludes that vacating the federal approval of the project “has the potential to cause substantially increased costs and financial harm, not only to the state but to many private businesses, residents and workers.”

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