The legal roadblock put up by a federal judge’s ruling this week has left Maryland officials considering how to proceed with ongoing operations related to the construction of the Purple Line that are costing the state about $13 million per month.
Mike Madden, the project’s deputy director for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), said at a Purple Line open house in Silver Spring on Wednesday night that he’s not aware of any state contingency plans to wind down work on the light-rail project in order to cut costs.
“If they do [have a plan], I’m not aware of it,” Madden said in response to a question from a reporter. “I don’t know what the plan is at this point. Our legal team is considering judicial remedies to get the project moving. Beyond that, I don’t know what else is happening, except that right now, we’re still doing our work.”
Purple Line Transit Partners, the private team of construction and finance companies that signed a $5.6 billion, 36-year agreement with the state to build and operate the light-rail line, said that about 700 workers—including 200 at a Purple Line office in Riverdale and others around the country—have been working on the project over the past several months.
Madden said they’re performing pre-construction work such as surveys, soil borings and design.
When asked if the team is going to reach a point where they don’t have anything to do—given that Judge Richard Leon’s ruling has stopped any significant construction from proceeding—Madden said he “can’t answer that” and “can’t speculate.”
“All I know is today they’re working,” Madden said.
Leon ruled Monday that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) must conduct a new environmental review of the project after finding that Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues could impact the future ridership of the Purple Line, which would not be operated by Metro, but would connect with the rail system at four stops. The ruling, which could further delay the start of construction, came in an ongoing lawsuit filed by two Town of Chevy Chase residents and a trail advocacy group, who oppose the Purple Line.
Both Gov. Larry Hogan and state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said after the ruling that the state plans to pursue all legal options to challenge Leon’s ruling. A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office said they’re currently reviewing their options and have not decided how they will proceed. The attorney general has the option to immediately appeal Leon’s ruling on the Metro issues or could wait until the judge issues rulings on about two dozen other environmental issues still pending in the case. Leon wrote in his ruling this week he plans to rule on the other issues “in a few weeks.”
The state is also pursuing a writ of mandamus from the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Attorney General Brian Frosh filed the legal maneuver earlier this month to attempt to force Leon to issue a ruling in the case, which the judge did after the writ was filed. However, the state could continue to pursue the writ to force Leon to rule on the other pending issues.
The case was brought by residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail. A legal expert has questioned Leon’s judgment in the case, as have several Maryland elected officials in the state.
Leon’s ruling and his decision to revoke the project’s federal approval in August have prevented the state from securing the $900 million in federal funds set to be allocated to the project. The state can’t sign the full funding agreement with FTA until the project’s federal approval is reinstated.
State officials have warned that slowing down work on the project will be costly.
Rahn wrote in the state’s filing for the writ that if there’s no “clear indication” of when the full funding agreement will be signed, then the state would likely have to suspend many if not all pre-construction activities.
Rahn added that the state may not have sufficient cash flow as of June 1 to continue to fund the pre-construction work. He wrote that suspending that work, then restarting when federal funding is obtained would “involve substantial additional delays and increased project costs.”
There was good news for the project’s supporters this week, despite the ruling. The project was among those listed in the FTA’s latest funding recommendations for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 in a Trump administration budget document, according to The Washington Post. The project’s inclusion will likely lessen fears that the administration could slash the federal funding for the project.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen told the paper he believes the FTA will sign the full funding grant agreement to secure the $900 million after the legal issues are resolved.
Despite the legal uncertainty, Purple Line Transit Partners says it’s firmly committed to the project.
“Live we’ve said before and I keep saying, we came here to make an investment over 35 years—five-and-a-half to six years of construction and 30 years of operating the [light-rail line],” Rob Chappel, the CEO of Purple Line Transit Partners, said Wednesday at the open house. “We’re partners with MTA, we’re partners with the state of Maryland, but we’re also partners with everybody in the region. We look forward to getting going. We see this as another hurdle. We’re here to support the state and we don’t intend to walk away.”
Chappel said he’s been involved in other projects that had to wind down for a few months. When work crews are forced to slow down, they try to continue to work on other key areas of the project, he said.
“You don’t want to lose momentum,” Chappel said. “Then again you have to be fiscally conscious, so we’re working with the state on a path forward on how we can get there. I’ve seen a project get put on hold. I don’t know if we’ll go there.”
He said the judge’s ruling at least presents an opportunity for the state to move forward.
“We got an answer, granted it wasn’t the one we wanted to see, but we’re working with the state on how we can get through this and keep this project going,” Chappel said.
He added that construction crews are ready to begin whenever they receive the green light.
“We’re like the horse at the gate,” Chappel said. “We think this project will move forward. We think there’s congressional support for this project, especially from the congressional delegation in Maryland. The governor is behind us. You can’t ask for more in a project. We want to get it going.”