Purple Line Construction Could Start in a Week if Judge Reinstates Project’s Federal Approval

As featured in Bethesda Magazine

Latest motions in lawsuit await ruling

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is prepared to start Purple Line construction within one to two weeks if a federal judge reinstates the project’s federal approval, according to a MTA spokesman.

The state’s construction of the 16.2 light-rail line was scheduled to start late last year, but was delayed when U.S District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the project’s federal approval in August as part of an ongoing lawsuit. MTA spokesman Ryan Nawrocki said Friday that while the lawsuit has delayed construction for more than three months, the state’s private contractor has been conducting engineering, design, surveying, planning and geotechnical investigations to prepare to build the line that would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.

Leon vacated the project’s federal approval days before the state was scheduled to sign an agreement with the federal government to receive $900 million to help pay for the project. Leon based his decision on the belief that MTA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) failed to account for Metro’s recent ridership decline and safety issues when the FTA approved the project to receive federal funds, an argument made by the plaintiffs.

Nawrocki said in an email the state has spent $312 million on planning, real estate and permitting costs, while not receiving federal or local reimbursements for the work.

Since Leon’s August decision, the FTA and MTA have responded in court documents that the project would meet its goals—primarily to add an east-west transit link between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties—even if Metro didn’t exist. Therefore, the agencies argued,  the project did not need to be re-evaluated.

Meanwhile the plaintiffs in the lawsuit—Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail—have asked the court to require the transit agencies to prepare a new supplemental environmental impact statement to account for Metro’s issues. That process could take more than six months and require additional public hearings. Two of the plaintiffs told Bethesda Beat earlier this month their goal is to have the Georgetown Branch right of way—where the Purple Line will run in Bethesda and Silver Spring—recognized and protected as a park.

Leon hasn’t issued a decision on the most recent motions in the case since the plaintiffs filed their response in January to the transit agencies’ analysis of Metro’s effects on the Purple Line, according to federal court records.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, a former regulatory attorney, said Monday during a press briefing that Metro will fix its issues in the next several years and therefore its operation shouldn’t impact the Purple Line over the long term. He added that he doesn’t believe Leon can substitute his judgment for the agencies that have studied the Purple Line.

“He cannot say this is a bad project,” Berliner said.

While Leon ruled it was arbitrary and capricious of the FTA not to consider whether Metro’s issues impacted the project, the FTA has since responded with an analysis of why those issues won’t significantly impact ridership on the Purple Line, Berliner said.

“I don’t understand how he can hold to his previous position now that he has asked them and had them provide that information,” Berliner said.

Last week’s release of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget outline also presented possible problems for the project. The proposal states only transit projects with full funding agreements in place will receive federal funds.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said last week the state won’t know if there’s a financial impact to the Purple Line until Congress approves a budget and the appropriations process is complete. Previously, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh wrote in a court filing that delaying the project due to the lawsuit would cost the state up to $13 million per month.

Last year, the state signed a 36-year, $5.6 billion agreement with the private team of construction and finance companies—Purple Line Transit Partners—that is tasked with designing, building, operating and maintaining the Purple Line.

Nawrocki said in his email the state would not pay Purple Line Transit Partners for any claims for payment due to the construction delay until the judge issues his ruling.

“If and when the judge gives us the go ahead, we will address any delay claims from our contractor,” Nawrocki wrote. It’s not clear if any claims have been made as of yet.

The state is still aiming to complete the Purple Line in 2022, he said.

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