Purple Line Takes Yet Another Blow

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon issued an opinion on Monday, May 22 further delaying activity on the Purple Line until the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) completes another environmental review of the project. Reports Bethesda Magazine

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.

Last August, Leon postponed the project and ordered updated projections to account for WMATA’s “deterioration and declining ridership.” The delay has stopped the project in its tracks, preventing the FTA and Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) from executing the project’s Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), through which the U.S. grants Maryland $900 million toward the project. FTA filed almost immediately for the judge to reconsider his ruling. Further exacerbating the gravity of the delay, President Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget eliminates all funding for transit projects which do not have executed FFGAs.

From Leon’s opinion:

On November 22, 2016, I issued an opinion and order instructing the FTA to critically evaluate the significance of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) Metrorail’s recent safety issues and ridership decline to determine whether a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (“SEIS”) was required for the Purple Line Project. …

…. 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 an SEIS that addresses these issues is in fact required. …

On August 3, 2016, I … found that the FTA’s conclusion that MetroRail’s ridership and safety issues would have no effect on the Purple Line was arbitrary and capricious. As a result, I vacated the [Record of Decision (“ROD”)] and instructed the defendants to prepare an SEIS as expeditiously as possible addressing these issues. …

Here, plaintiff’s expert declarations, at a minimum, raise serious questions about the defendant’s assumptions about WMATA Metrorail and its future impact on the Purple Line. 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. As such, the FTA’s resulting refusal to prepare an SEIS was arbitrary and capricious. Accordingly, it is hereby ordered that, consistent with NEPA’s procedural requirements, the defendants shall prepare an SEIS addressing them as expeditiously as possible.

FTA submitted an analysis to the court last December which examined five vastly different ridership forecasts, and concluded that in any of of those cases, the Purple Line would meet its intended goal to establish an improved east-west transit connection in the service area – to justify its case that an SEIS was not, in fact, warranted. “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.

Governor Hogan has issued the following statement:

Bethesda Magazine coverage and the opinion are available here.