A federal district court judge delivered another blow to the Purple Line in a ruling that called for the Federal Transit Administration to begin a new environmental review of the 16.2-mile light-rail project.
Judge Richard Leon wrote in an opinion published online Monday the FTA failed to adequately address the potential negative impact that Metro’s ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line as he had requested.
He noted he instructed the federal agency Nov. 22 to examine the issues faced by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Instead FTA largely relied on the Maryland Transit Administration’s previous analysis that had been submitted to the court Nov. 3 in response to the lawsuit filed by two Town of Chevy Chase residents and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, he said.
“After careful consideration of the motions, the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, I find that defendants have failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential impact that WMATA’s ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line project and conclude for the following reasons that [a supplemental environmental impact statement] that addresses these issues is in fact required,” Leon wrote.
The ruling in the long-running court case seems likely to result in further construction delays—and possible cancellation of the project—and could jeopardize federal funding slated for the project. The state had planned to start construction on the line that would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton in Prince George’s County late last year. The ruling comes more than a month after Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh had requested a decision in the case, warning that continued construction delays would cost the state about $13 million per month.
Leon cited Metro’s issues when he vacated the project’s federal approval in August, which has prevented the state from securing the approximately $900 million in federal funds needed to start construction.
State officials have become increasingly frustrated with delays caused by the court case and earlier this month sought a writ of mandamus from the federal Court of Appeals in D.C. to force Leon to issue a new ruling in the case—so they could either appeal it or move forward with construction.
It’s not immediately clear what the state will do now that Leon has called for a new environmental review—a public process that could take several months or more than a year to complete.
In his ruling, Leon wrote FTA failed to provide adequate evidence that Metro’s issues wouldn’t change the Purple Line’s environmental impacts or the project’s ability to meet its identified purpose and need.
The FTA in December submitted an analysis to Leon that examined five different scenarios, ranging from Metro ridership increasing and tens of thousands of riders transferring to the Purple Line to no riders transferring from Metro to the Purple Line. The federal agency wrote the Purple Line would still meet its primary goal under any of the five scenarios to provide an improved east-west transit connection between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“Surprisingly, neither FTA nor MTA attempted to critically assess or discern which of these five wildly disparate scenarios is actually most likely to occur,” Leon wrote in his opinion.
The judge also found FTA and MTA both failed in their court filings to address issues raised by the plaintiffs’ experts—including that of former World Bank economist Frank Lysy, who concluded that service improvements and regional population growth may not increase Metro ridership growth in the future.
“Here, plaintiffs’ expert declarations, at a minimum, raise serious questions about the defendants’ assumptions about WMATA Metrorail and its future impact on the Purple Line,” Leon wrote. “By failing, yet again, to grapple with plaintiffs’ submissions, the FTA failed to take a hard look at all of the information in the administrative record that could inform the agency about the impact that WMATA Metrorail’s ridership issues could have on the Purple Line Project.”