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Judge vacates Purple Line approval, orders new ridership study

A map of the proposed Purple Line that would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

A map of the proposed Purple Line that would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

Maryland must conduct another study on anticipated Purple Line ridership in light of safety concerns about the Metrorail system, a federal judge has ruled.

The order Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon that the state prepare another supplemental environmental impact statement in light of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership and safety issues puts in jeopardy construction of the Purple Line, which was scheduled to begin later this year.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn says the state will appeal the ruling.

The 16.2-mile project, spanning Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, was previously approved by the Federal Transit Administration and environmental agencies but challenged in federal court.

The plaintiffs, a Bethesda-based trail group, challenged several agency actions related to the Purple Line. But Wednesday’s opinion focused on the failure to reevaluate ridership estimates.

“Here, defendants wholly failed to evaluate the significance of the documented safety issues and decline in WMATA ridership, skirting the issue entirely on the basis that the Purple Line is not part of WMATA,” Leon wrote.

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, called Leon’s decision “absurd” in a prepared statement.

“Everyone who lives in the Washington suburbs knows that traffic, particularly between Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties is getting worse, which reinforces the evidence that we need to build the Purple Line sooner rather than later,” said Rosapepe, chairman of the county’s Senate delegation.

Though the Purple Line is not part of WMATA, previous projections estimated more than a quarter of Purple Line riders would use Metrorail for part of their trip, Leon wrote, and he could not “turn a blind eye to the recent extraordinary events involving seemingly endless Metrorail breakdowns and safety issues.”

Declining ridership

WMATA shut down Metrorail service in the spring to allow federal inspectors to check the system and began system-wide repairs to comply with Federal Transit Administration orders. As recently as July 29, a Metro train derailed in northern Virginia and one passenger was hospitalized.

In their motion for summary judgment, filed in February, the plaintiffs cited declining ridership of the Metrorail system and 78 serious deficiencies the National Transportation and Safety Board found in its evaluation, calling the revelations new circumstances.

Leon found the government’s “cavalier attitude” toward these circumstances raised “troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds.”

A Monday event where the Maryland Department of Transportation had expected to sign a funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to secure $900 million in federal aid has been canceled in light of the judge’s ruling.

Leon said the appropriate remedy for the arbitrary and capricious agency action was to vacate approval of the Purple Line and remand the issue to the state for a revised study.

“While a temporary halt in the project is not ideal, it would make little sense and cause even more disruption if defendants were to proceed with the project while the [study] was being completed, only to subsequently determine that another alternative is preferable,” he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.