The federal government filed its brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. in the long-running Purple Line case on Friday and rebuked two rulings by a lower court by saying the judge erred in his conclusions.
The brief prepared by Department of Justice attorneys is the first one filed in the appeal in the D.C. court. It lays out why Maryland and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) believe District Court Judge Richard Leon’s rulings in the case should be overturned.
Leon previously vacated the light-rail project’s federal approval and called for a new environmental analysis for the Purple Line. He said the FTA and the state failed to properly study the impact that Metro’s ridership decline and safety issues would have on the project.
Last month, the Court of Appeals granted the state’s request for a stay on Leon’s decision to vacate the project’s federal approval. That ruling allowed the state to pursue a full funding grant agreement with the federal government to access $900 million in federal funds proposed for the Purple Line.
Despite the stay, the Court of Appeals still could revoke the project’s federal approval and call for a new environment analysis. That could happen if the panel of three judges sides with Leon and the plaintiffs—Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the trail group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
The Appeals Court has already granted an expedited briefing schedule for the case. The plaintiffs have until Sept. 8 to submit their brief in response to the federal government’s argument.
Oral arguments in the case could take place as soon as this fall. The court order for the expedited briefing schedule notes that the clerk will schedule the arguments “on the first appropriate date” after both sides submit their briefings.
In the new appellate brief, the federal attorneys write that the FTA followed the appropriate procedures to study the project’s environmental impact in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
The brief notes that the FTA studied the impact of Metro’s issues on the proposed 16.2-mile light-rail line and found that they would not significantly reduce ridership on the line—even if Metro didn’t exist. More importantly, the attorneys wrote, Metro’s issues would not change the route of the Purple Line and therefore would not change its impact on the environment.
The attorneys wrote that the FTA’s 2016 decision not to prepare a new environmental analysis for the Purple Line was not “arbitrary and capricious” because the agency properly examined the subject and found that the light-rail line met its stated goals. Those goals are to provide better east-west transit between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, provide better connections to Metrorail and improve connectivity between Metrorail’s lines.
If built, the Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County and have 21 stations. The line would connect with Metro’s Red, Green and Orange lines at four stations—Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.
The attorneys wrote that FTA experts accurately evaluated how Metro’s issues would affect the Purple Line, despite criticism from an economist cited by the plaintiffs.
“After conducting the assessment, FTA reasonably found that Metrorail’s recent problems would not cause the Purple Line to have any new, significant environmental impacts or prevent the Purple Line from achieving the project purpose,” the brief notes. “[The plaintiffs] identified no relevant factor that FTA failed to consider. Thus, the district court erred in concluding that FTA’s decision not to prepare a [new environmental analysis] was arbitrary and capricious.”
The attorneys requested that the court permanently restore the project’s federal approval and reverse Leon’s ruling calling for a new environmental analysis for the project. Attorneys for the state made similar arguments in its brief that was also filed with the court on Friday.
The state has said it began the process to secure the full funding grant agreement for the project, but it’s not clear if or when the federal Department of Transportation will sign it. The state was scheduled to sign it with federal transportation leaders in August 2016, but Leon vacated the project’s federal approval five days before it could be signed.
The state signed a 36-year, $5.6 billion contract last year with Purple Line Transit Partners, a private team of finance and construction companies that will build, operate and maintain the light-rail line.