Updated at 2:20 p.m. – Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn says the state will appeal the ruling made Wednesday by a federal judge that vacates federal approval of the Purple Line light-rail project and requires the state to conduct another ridership study.
“We are deeply disappointed that this puts the Purple Line in jeopardy,” Rahn said in a statement. “We will work closely with the Attorney General to seek a quick decision from the court of appeals.”
The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, a group led by Chevy Chase residents that was a plaintiff in the case, celebrated U.S. District Judge Richard Leon’s decision, tweeting:
Tonight we heard the trees cheering the #PurpleLineMD decision on the #CapitalCrescentTrail https://t.co/pEUJb91Kj9
— Save The Trail (@SaveTheTrail) August 4, 2016
The group’s goal is to save the Capital Crescent Trail, the former railroad that was converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path and that runs through Bethesda and Chevy Chase. Montgomery County purchased the right-of-way with the goal of putting a transit system there.
While plans call for the existing trail to be replaced by a new one to run alongside the light-rail tracks, the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail group says the loss of existing trees will effectively mean the destruction of a much-needed park:
Leon’s ruling, however, had nothing to do with the environmental impacts of the Purple Line. The state and its selected team of private contractors hoped to break ground on the project later this year. In court filings, attorneys for the state said a delay for an additional study could threaten the project.
Leon ordered an additional environmental impact study based on Metro’s recent ridership decline and safety issues—a claim the plaintiffs added to their list of arguments after the initial lawsuit was filed in 2014.
Leon acknowledged the Purple Line is a separate transit system from Metro, but with about a quarter of projected riders expected to use Metro as part of their trips, he said it wouldn’t make sense not to consider Metro’s problems.
In one section of his decision, Leon appeared to confuse the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates Metro. The FTA in the following passage refers to the Federal Transit Administration.
WMATA was not a party in the case.
“At a minimum, WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of federal taxpayer’s funds,” Leon wrote.
County Council member Roger Berliner wrote on Facebook that he “could not disagree more with the federal judge who has postponed, if not jeopardized, the construction of the Purple Line.”
“This is a terrible decision,” Berliner wrote. “Let us hope it does not have terrible consequences.”
The Action Committee for Transit, a group of local transit advocates, quickly condemned Leon’s decision:
Action Committee for Transit “condemns” federal judge’s Purple Line ruling: https://t.co/aj9CT2Pzzw pic.twitter.com/AnGBqbBlic
— Bethesda Beat (@BethesdaBeat) August 4, 2016
So did Purple Line NOW, another group of local Purple Line advocates.
“We have no doubt that the study ordered by Judge Leon will affirm the same fact found by all of the past studies: our region desperately needs East-West transit alternatives,” Purple Line NOW President Ralph Bennett said. “This decision delays relief for tens of thousands of future riders, for employees going to a job in Bethesda, for students young and old commuting to the University of Maryland, for 90,000 Marylanders who will newly be within a half mile of transit, and for thousands of workers who will be employed to construct it.”