Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen on Monday said a federal judge was “short-sighted” in his latest ruling in an ongoing lawsuit over construction of the Purple Line.
“My personal view is that it was incredible a judge could take this position,” Floreen said during a regular morning press briefing.
She was reacting to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s Nov. 22 ruling that asked the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to study whether the agency believes it needs to develop another supplemental environmental impact statement for the project because of recent safety and ridership issues on Metro. The judge ruled the FTA should study whether Metro’s issues would impact ridership on the Purple Line because the 16.2-mile light-rail line will link to several Metro stations along its route between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Leon revoked the federal approval of the project in an August ruling where he initially asked the transit agencies to review Metro’s problems and the impact they would have on Purple Line ridership. A groundbreaking was scheduled for later this year, but the lawsuit filed by two Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail has prevented construction from moving forward.
Floreen said Leon’s latest ruling focuses on a one-time issue that Metro is dealing with by instituting its year-long SafeTrack repair process.
“To focus on a unique circumstance where [Metro is] focusing on maintenance and they’re improving the system and [the judge] acting like this one-shot deal affects the future of transit in the region is short-sighted and if you ask me, irresponsible,” Floreen said.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the case submitted a letter late last month to FTA and Maryland Department of Transportation officials asking them to examine alternatives to constructing the light-rail line and to hold additional public hearings.
The plaintiffs wrote “there is no doubt” the project would cause the loss of more than 40 acres of forest and lead to the uncovering of “scores of hazardous materials sites” near parks. The letter was addressed to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn.
The plaintiffs argue that Metro’s issues, primarily concerning safety policy criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board, have created questions about whether the Purple Line’s ridership and revenue have substantially changed.
“The extraordinary situation here is ‘without precedent’: we are certainly aware of no comparable case in which a massively expensive light project was initially presented as intricately linked to an existing mass transit system which then experienced systematic breakdowns so extreme that the present and future viability of the system has been called into question,” the letter says. “This is therefore the classic situation that warrants new public comment even if the FTA opts to prepare a [preliminary assessment] as an initial matter.”
The Purple Line is estimated to cost $2 billion to construct and a total of $5.6 billion over the term of a 36-year state contract with Purple Line Transit Partners, the team that will build, operate and maintain the light-rail line.
The continuing delay of construction is welcome news for Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
“We are on strong ground. But the fight is not over,” Ajay Bhatt, the president of the group, wrote in a letter to supporters sent Saturday. “The bottom line is that we must now make sure the Maryland Transit Administration and other agencies don’t wiggle out of the requirements of the court and the law.”
Bhatt urged supporters to tell their friends that “the fiscally and environmentally irresponsible Purple Line is suspended” and requested donations to support the lawsuit.
Neither the FTA nor the Maryland Transit Administration has said how they plan to respond to the judge’s latest ruling.
“We’re reviewing the judge’s decision and considering the next appropriate steps,” Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said in an email to Bethesda Beat last week. The justice department is representing the FTA in the lawsuit. Ryan Nawrocki, a MTA spokesman, said last week he did not know when the transit agency will respond to Leon’s latest ruling.
Supporters of the Purple Line said last month the ruling offered some hope for a resolution in the ongoing lawsuit by allowing the FTA to decide whether it believed a new supplemental environmental impact study (SEIS) is needed—if one is not needed, it’s possible federal approval of the project could be more quickly reinstated.