At a sparsely attended public hearing in Silver Spring Monday night, two of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Purple Line urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of Natural Resources not to approve environmental permits that are needed to allow construction to begin on the light-rail transit project.
“My strong view is that the corps should not be issuing a Section 404 permit at this time,” Christine Real de Azua, one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the project, said at the hearing, which was attended by about two dozen people.
Officials from the corps and the state’s natural resources department held the public hearing as part of the permit approval process for the project, which are being requested by the Maryland Transit Administration. The corps issues Section 404 permits to major projects that have the potential to damage water systems after evaluating criteria such as economic benefit, public concern and environmental impact.
Real de Azua said the corps should examine whether other alternatives to the Purple Line—such as bus rapid transit—would limit the impact on the environment. She also noted that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon recently vacated the federal government‘s approval of the project over ridership concerns and Metro’s lagging performance as part of the lawsuit Real de Azua and others are pursuing.
“The judge has initially focused on ridership issues in his ruling,” Real de Azua said. “He has reserved judgment on the many other counts in the lawsuit, including on water quality, on other impacts on the environment such as forest areas and on potential endangered species habitat.”
The 16.2-mile Purple Line is projected to require 43 acres of forest clearing and to permanently impact about a half-acre of nontidal wetlands and 1,304 linear feet of perennial streams, according to information provided at the hearing. The rail line will run east-west from Bethesda to New Carrolton in Prince George’s County.
The judge’s ruling in August led to questions about whether the state will be able to move forward with construction on the rail line later this year, as originally planned when the state’s Board of Public Works approved a $5.6 billion, 36-year contract with Purple Line Transit Partners in April. Purple Line Transit Partners is the group of construction and finance companies that will design, build, operate and maintain the project over the life of the contract. The judge’s decision delayed the signing of the federal full funding agreement, which would formally approve the project’s $900 million in federal funds.
Mike Madden, the project’s deputy director at the Maryland Transit Administration, said Monday he has not received an update on whether the judge will revise his order. The federal government, Maryland and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have asked the judge to reconsider his decision so the project can proceed. Madden said the state is still planning to hold a groundbreaking later this year.
Madden said Monday night’s hearing is part of the process required to obtain environmental permits the project needs to begin construction. A second hearing is scheduled for Tuesday night at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
John Fitzergald, another of the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the rail line, also testified during the hearing and said there’s a lack of information about the project’s environmental impacts. He encouraged the corps to look at alternatives to avoid deforestation and to examine how hazardous materials used during the construction process will impact wetlands.
Two other speakers at the meeting said they would not take a position on the project, although one said she could potentially support it because it's a transit project, but needed more information, while the other was an attorney who was there to represent a property owner that would be affected by wetland relief associated with the project.
Members of the public can submit written comments to the corps and state environmental departments through Nov. 2.
Correction: This article was updated to indicate the position of two other speakers at the meeting, it initially summarized their comments as favorable to the project, but in fact they took no position on the project, according to the audio recording from the meeting.