2016 | Transportation

Purple Line Groundbreaking on Hold Until Transit Agencies Can Find Lawsuit Solution

Project is unlikely to begin construction this year

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Maryland Transit Administration

As each day passes, it appears more unlikely that Maryland officials will celebrate the groundbreaking for construction of the Purple Line later this year as originally planned.

Ryan Nawrocki, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), said Monday that the groundbreaking won’t happen until the project’s federal Record of Decision is reinstated by a federal judge who revoked it in August.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the project’s federal approval after finding that the MTA and Federal Transit Administration failed to study what effect, if any, Metro’s recent maintenance issues and ridership decline would have on the 16.2-mile light-rail project.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the FTA in the federal lawsuit brought by two Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Leon’s latest ruling.

Nawrocki said he did not know when the transit agencies would respond to Leon’s most recent amended ruling, which the judge issued last week. In that ruling, Leon asked the agencies to determine whether they believe a new supplemental environmental impact statement is needed due to Metro’s problems and to issue a report to him detailing why they don’t believe a new one is needed, if that’s the case.

“It’s a complex legal matter and we’re still continuing to review it,” Nawrocki said. “We think we’re going to have robust ridership on the Purple Line, regardless of any problems or lack thereof Metro has. But it’s up to the judge to decide.”

Purple Line ridership is forecasted to exceed 74,000 on a typical weekday by 2040, according to MTA’s 2014 estimates.

Supporters of the Purple Line, including Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner, have said they hope the FTA and MTA can file a response to the judge’s order quickly so that the lawsuit can move forward.

Berliner, a former regulatory attorney, said last week Leon’s finding left an opening for the agencies to weigh Metro’s issues and their possible impact on the Purple Line and once the agencies have done so, it would be difficult for the judge to continue to delay the project by pressing for more information.

If FTA determines a new environment impact statement is not needed, then the case will proceed on a schedule set by Leon.

In his Nov. 22 order, the judge said that after FTA files its assessment, the agency will have seven days to file for a motion for summary judgment. After that, the plaintiffs in the case will have 14 days to file their opposition to the motion. At that point, the FTA, MTA and others will have seven days to reply to the opposition.

Once those documents are filed, Leon would be able to issue a new ruling, although there is no specific timeline for him to do so.

Due to the month-long filing deadlines, coupled with likely breaks for the winter holidays, means it’s extremely unlikely the Record of Decision would be reinstated until sometime in 2017, even if Leon agrees with FTA’s argument, according to the schedule.

Without federal approval, the light-rail line that would stretch from Bethesda to New Carrolton in Prince George’s County can’t begin construction. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who signed off on the project earlier this year, had set a five-year construction timeline for the Purple Line, with an opening set for 2022.