At a crucial hearing on the lawsuit brought by a group of Chevy Chase residents against the Purple Line in federal court Wednesday, the judge considered the possibility of putting the light-rail project on hold for six months to analyze the effect that Metro’s recent woes could have on its projected ridership.
The plaintiffs, Chevy Chase residents John M. Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the nonprofit Friends of the Capitol Crescent Trail, argued to halt construction of the Purple Line on the grounds of its environmental impact, the use of proprietary data for ridership estimates used by the various agencies backing the transit line and the agencies’ refusal to grant a supplemental study of the impacts of the project given new cost-cutting measures as well as continued problems with the Metro system, which wouldn’t be part of the project.
Though he didn’t come to a decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon noted that these changes could warrant investigation before continuing with the already delayed transit system, which would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton and is currently set to begin service in 2022. The state plans to begin construction late this year and the “financial close” on a contract with private companies slated to design, build and operate the light-rail is set for Friday.
“What would the harm be to take six months, a timeout, and then conduct an [environmental impact statement] considering changes, then give proprietary data to the plaintiff if they sign a confidentiality agreement?” Leon asked the defense. “This thing has been kicking around for [10 years]; how can [a six-month delay] harm the government? These recent events could have a monumental impact.”
However, Linda Strozyk DeVuono, a Maryland Transit Administration lawyer, resisted the possibility, suggesting any further delay would essentially derail the project.
“I do know a six-month stop of work would allow investors to pull out,” she said.
Before the two-hour hearing ended with Leon giving both sides two weeks to prepare any additional statements, the judge voiced concern both over the fact the litigation took so long to come to court and that questions seemed to remain unanswered about a project that is already underway with preliminary site preparation work.
Leon mentioned how the area has “seen safety issues of seemingly epic proportions” from Metro in recent months and asked whether consideration should be given to the effect these “major problems [that] have been unearthed” will have on Purple Line ridership. The light-rail will connect to Metro stations in Bethesda, Silver Spring and New Carrollton, though it is separate from Metro.
The defense was careful to distance the Purple Line from the problems of Metro. Tyler Burgess, a lawyer representing the Federal Transit Administration, said the administration’s analysts have found that a majority of future riders would use the Purple Line without using the Metro at all and dismissed the idea that current problems could have such a lasting impact.
“Any short-term problems Metro is experiencing is a different problem,” she said. “It’s way too speculative to suggest those [problems] would have an effect in 2040,” the year the agencies looked to in predicting the line’s long-term ridership.
Strozyk DeVuono assured the judge the Purple Line “will not have the problems that are recurring on the Metro.” She noted that Metro is not an MTA project, and that the Purple Line will have a different design and the backing of a public-private partnership.
The plaintiffs also requested proprietary data the agencies used to estimate future ridership in order to make informed comment on the project.
David Brown, a lawyer for the plaintiff, said what they were asking for was not peripheral information. “Cost and ridership are critical components of the effectiveness of the multibillion dollar project,” he said.
Leon fielded the possibility of allowing the plaintiffs to access this information provided they sign a confidentiality agreement. Defense lawyers argued against such an agreement, saying they made all the underlying data and finalized reports available and the only thing the plaintiffs lacked was the software to analyze the data, which they would need a license to use.
Fitzgerald, one of the Chevy Chase residents, said it was important to know the full effects of the Purple Line to compare its effectiveness to alternatives, some of which would have less of an environmental impact.
“One of the fundamentals of the federal law is that federally funded transportation projects will not cause harm to parks unless it cannot be avoided,” he said. The defendants admit the Purple Line “will affect 13 different parks. They also admit that the alternatives will affect none.”
An environmental impact study had previously been conducted on the project, but the plaintiffs argued another was necessary to account for the changes to the project. Gov. Larry Hogan approved a version of the project last year with a lower budget that wouldn’t offer all of the originally proposed features, including a green track of vegetation in between the light-rail tracks that could allow for more effective stormwater collection.
But Burgess said green tracks could still be used in addition to other environmentally friendly measures and argued any changes in the budget or Metro setbacks were not adequate cause to postpone the project by requiring a supplemental environmental impact statement.
“None of the information was new,” Burgess said, “and whatever was new was not significant.”