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Federal judge orders further study before Purple Line clearance

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.

A federal judge Monday ordered further study of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership before plans for the Purple Line can proceed.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Leon ruled state and federal agencies “failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential impact” of Metro’s issues in ordering the supplemental environmental impact statement of the $2 billion project.

In November, Leon ordered the Federal Transit Administration to “critically evaluate the significance” of safety issues and ridership decline Metro faced to determine if a supplemental statement was necessary.

The Federal Transit Administration issued a seven-page memorandum within three weeks, concluding a supplemental statement was not required based on an assessment done by the Maryland Transit Authority prior to the court’s order.

The FTA approved the Purple Line project – a 16.2 mile light rail spanning Montgomery and Prince George’s counties – in 2014, and a Bethesda-based trail group challenged several agency actions in federal court.

Leon partially granted summary judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor in August 2016, finding as arbitrary and capricious the FTA’s conclusion that Metro’s ridership and safety issues would have no effect on the Purple Line. Leon subsequently vacated FTA approval of the project and heard arguments over the necessity of a supplemental statement in January.

Gov. Larry Hogan criticized Leon’s ruling Monday, accusing the judge of ignoring federal and state transportation experts and environmental advocates who support the Purple Line.

“The fact that it took a federal judge this long to reach the conclusion that more study is needed is completely baffling and, if allowed to stand, will cause irreparable harm to this vital project and cost the state hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars,” Hogan said in a statement.

Hogan, who attacked the Purple Line on the campaign trail but later green-lit the project after taking office, publicly criticized Leon last month, claiming the judge was biased because of where he lives and his wife’s alleged connection to a group opposing the project.

It was later reported that Hogan misstated the judge’s residence and his wife’s affiliation with a civic group.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh filed a petition earlier this month asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to require Leon to rule on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit prior to June 1, when the state argued it will run out of money for pre-construction work.

A spokeswoman for Frosh’s office said Monday that attorneys are reviewing the decision to determine next steps.

MTA assessment

In a technical assessment analyzing possible WMATA ridership scenarios between now and 2040, MTA concluded ridership could continue to decline then recover and grow, decline then stabilize or continue to decline. An additional scenario considered ridership if there is no Metrorail transfer to or from the Purple Line.

In the memorandum filed with the court after Leon’s November order, “neither FTA nor MTA attempted to critically assess or discern which of these five wildly disparate scenarios is actually most likely to occur,” the judge wrote.

The FTA concluded under any scenario that the Purple Line will have the same construction footprint and therefore the same environmental impact and meet its purposes, so no supplemental assessment was necessary. But Leon pointed out that one of the identified purposes of the Purple Line was to provide better connections to Metrorail services.

FTA also failed to establish the plaintiffs’ expert declarations were properly considered.

“To be clear, I am not suggesting that the FTA was obligated to defer to the substantive conclusions included in those declarations,” Leon wrote. “However, the fact that the agency is entitled to its own discretion does not mean that it can disregard materials that were included in the administrative record on remand.”

The case is Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail et al. v. Federal Transit Administration et al., 1:14-cv-01471-RJL.

The Associated Press and Washington Post News Service & Syndicate contributed to this report.


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