Montgomery County Council Vice President Roger Berliner is hopeful that a judge’s ruling Tuesday in an ongoing Purple Line lawsuit offers a way for the light-rail project to move forward.
Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and state of Maryland must consider what impact Metro’s recent ridership and safety issues would have on ridership of the Purple Line. His ruling stated he would not reinstate the project’s Record of Decision, which is basically the federal approval, until FTA weighs in on this issue. Without the approval crews cannot begin construction on the light-rail line and the state can’t receive the full $900 million the federal government has allocated to the project.
However, Leon slightly altered his August order by not requiring a new supplemental environmental impact statement for the project, which if needed, could have triggered additional public hearings and months and months of research. Instead, he ruled FTA could decide on its own whether Metro’s issues would substantially affect the Purple Line’s ridership. The agency would then submit its findings to him and he would weigh the next steps.
Officials from the FTA and Maryland Transit Administration did not immediately respond to calls and emails sent to them requesting comment about the ruling Wednesday morning.
Berliner, a former regulatory attorney who also serves as the chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and supports the Purple Line, said Leon’s order should enable the Federal Transit Administration to quickly analyze the issue and satisfy Leon’s request.
He noted that Leon based his ruling on a finding that the FTA and state were “arbitrary and capricious” in not studying Metro’s issues, which mostly cropped up after the federal government approved the Purple Line’s Record of Decision in March 2014. Leon noted that about 27 percent of trips on the Purple Line would include transfers from Metro stations that are connected along the route between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
The FTA’s report should satisfy Leon’s concerns that the agency failed to consider the decline in Metro’s service and ridership when approving the project, according to Berliner.
“Once they do that, it is virtually impossible for the agencies to be ‘arbitrary and capricious,’” Berliner said Wednesday. “The judge may disagree with the findings, but that’s not the standard he is able to impose on the agency. Once he basically opens the door to say ‘Ok, come back, show me that you looked at this’ that should be the end of that.”
He also described Metro’s problems as a “temporary blip” and said they are being fixed by Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld as part of the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program.
“The region is committed to fixing Metro, the GM is committed to fixing Metro, Metro will get fixed,” Berliner said.
However, opponents of the Purple Line continued to take aim at the 16.2 mile project’s ridership figures. Ajay Bhatt, a Chevy Chase resident who is also the president of the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with two Chevy Chase residents, told WAMU Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the ridership figures are trustworthy.
“If the benefits are ridership, and if that ridership is supposedly coming from Metro, then that ridership and how they arrived at it should be transparent,” Bhatt told the radio station.
Meanwhile, supporters are hoping that the decision Tuesday will move the project out of lawsuit purgatory.
Greg Sanders, vice president of Purple Line Now!, an advocacy group for the project, said Wednesday morning that members of his group were “reassured” that the judge asked the FTA to evaluate Metro’s problems and its impact on the Purple Line, rather than simply call for a new environmental study.
“Of course, we’re disappointed he didn’t reestablish a record of decision, which means the groundbreaking likely gets pushed further off,” Sanders said.
He added though that he doesn’t believe Metro’s issues could potentially kill the Purple Line project.
Ronit Dancis, the president of the Action Committee for Transit, said Tuesday night she’s disappointed that a “very tiny group of elite people in Chevy Chase” have held up the project and noted that it’s been supported by former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley as well as current Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
“Obviously we would have preferred a complete victory,” Dancis said. “But now we’re out of limbo and there are some possible paths forward.”