SEABROOK – A judge’s ruling may give the Purple Line a path forward, but the delay has stalled progress – and some are arguing work should remain stopped.
On May 31, Judge Richard Leon issued his long-awaited ruling in a lawsuit against the Purple Line, brought by citizens and groups including Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, alleging environmental harm. The suit claimed that migratory birds and an endangered species of crustacean known as Kenk’s amphipod would be harmed by Purple Line construction and operations. However, in his ruling, Leon sided with defendants – the Federal Transit Administration and the state of Maryland – saying the environmental review had properly considered impacts to the environment.
However, he did side with the plaintiffs on one issue: the potential impacts of declining Metro ridership on the Purple Line. Leon reaffirmed his decision that additional environmental analysis is needed before he will reinstate the Record of Decision that gives the light rail legal authority to proceed.
“It is further ordered that the clerk shall enter judgment for the plaintiffs on Count I of the Amended Complaint and for federal defendants and defendant-intervenor on Counts II and III of the Amended Complaint,” the decision reads.
The decision is a mere two pages, as Leon does not explain his reasoning, but says it “will be explained in a Memorandum Opinion that will follow in the near future.”
The state is appealing the remaining count and filed the paperwork almost immediately after the judge’s decision was issued. However, the lawsuit has delayed the project enough that the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the lead state agency on the project, is suspending pre-construction work.
Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said in a statement, “With an unknown timeline for an appeal and dwindling available cash to carry the federal reimbursable costs being expended by MDOT, and to protect the taxpayers of Maryland, I am ordering that action be taken immediately.”
Court documents indicated that the state was losing up to $800 million during the period that work on the $5.6 billion project was delayed.
Rahn’s order specifies that Purple Line Transit Partners is not to sign new construction contracts and should freeze hiring of construction staff and suspend all procurement of “non-essential materials and equipment.” Additionally, MDOT will suspend hiring of oversight staff and state funding of county-level design reviews, and halt all requests for land acquisitions for the line’s right-of-way.
Still, Rahn acknowledged that the decision means the “Purple Line’s situation has changed from the unknown circumstances of just two weeks ago,” giving it “a legal path forward.”
Supporters of the project, such as the Action Committee for Transit (ACT), also expressed hope now that the final decision had been made and the judge sided mostly with the project. ACT said in a statement that it welcomes the state’s appeal.
“We are pleased that the deeply flawed court order can now be appealed. We look forward to justice being done so that the Purple Line goes forward and the will of the people prevails over the obstruction of a privileged few,” the group said in a statement.
Opponents of the line, however, see the decision – which does further delay the project – as an opportunity for decisionmakers to re-evaluate it.
Christine Real de Azua, a Montgomery County resident who is a citizen plaintiff in the case, said the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) did not provide “a full, fair and transparent assessment of impacts and of alternatives” and “grossly exaggerated” ridership projections.
“Moreover, most – over 60 percent – of projected riders according to MTA itself would be people who already use public transit! This $5.6 billion wasteful project therefore wouldn’t even take many cars off the road but instead cannibalize riders and resources away from other transit systems and higher investment priorities,” she said. “The judge’s ruling, and the very real possibility that the Purple Line may not go forward, should give politicians, agencies and citizens a chance to reevaluate transportation priorities locally and for the region, so that we truly serve the largest number of people and those who need transit the most, and do so in the most cost-effective way.”
Bradley Heard, an attorney and activist from the Capitol Heights area who blogs as PGUrbanist, agrees. He said the line may be appealing because it is “new, it’s shiny, it’s paid for, by and large, by the state and the federal government” but, in his view, the county would be better served expanding its bus service rather than investing in more rail stations.
“I think buses are a solution that can be employed countywide to address a transit deficiency,” Heard said. “$120 million to build the Purple Line in only part of the county. You should probably divert money to a solution that benefits more population.”
The Purple Line would run in the northern area of the county only, while expanding The Bus network could benefit the more scattered populations in other sections of the county, he argues.
Heard says he is a supporter of transit in general but believes the Purple Line is not the right project for Prince George’s County. He pointed out that the county’s own Plan 2035, which guides development, does not support adding more transit centers.
The plan states, “It is critical that we concentrate residential development in a limited number of centers to achieve the density, intensity and form necessary to support successful mixed-use, walkable communities and economic generators… This projected growth cannot be spread… over the 28 centers envisioned by Plan 2035.” It also notes the Purple Line will bring the number of such centers to 34.
However, Plan 2035 also states that its overarching goal is to "create a transportation network that provides convenient and equitable multimodal access to jobs and services" and specifically cites the Purple Line as a "critical" piece of making that vision a reality.
Heard acknowledges that the line will lead to economic development around Metro stations, but said that would happen anyway. And, it is unlikely county leaders will change course on a plan they have championed so forcefully for so long.
“It’ll make connections quicker where it is. It will serve the purpose,” Heard said of the project. “Whether it’s a net positive for the county as a whole, I’m not sure.”