Appeals Court Breathes New Life Into D.C. Light Rail

WASHINGTON (CN) – After several months of setbacks that nearly killed the $2.5 billion Purple Line light rail, the D.C. Circuit revived the project Wednesday by staying a federal judge’s ruling blocking construction based on ridership and safety issues.

Construction for the 16-mile rail line could begin as soon as federal funding is approved, as Maryland is now poised to seek roughly $900 million in federal grants.

The proposed rail will stretch from Bethesda, Md., to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.

The Federal Transportation Authority, or FTA, first approved the project in 2014.

For the past three years, however, regulators have been tied up in court by conservationists at Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.

In a 2014 complaint, the group complained that regulators signed off on the project without taking into account how the line will affect its surrounding ecosystem, Rock Creek Park.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon agreed last year, vacating the FTA’s 2014 record of decision, and ruling that the finding of no impact was arbitrary and capricious. In calling for a supplemental environmental impact statement, known as an SEIS, Leon said he was providing an opportunity for the agency to critically evaluate ridership and safety issues that have bedeviled the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The D.C. Circuit’s per-curiam emergency stay was issued Wednesday and places a hold on Judge Leon’s ruling.

“The State of Maryland has satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal,” the two-page order states, without further explanation.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh celebrated the win on Twitter.

“We’re very pleased with the D.C. Circuit Court’s order on the Purple Line. The order will allow construction to commence and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to keep the Purple Line moving forward,” Frosh wrote.

Until Wednesday, construction of the line was deemed risky since the state was running out of money to continue “pre-construction work.” Congress has allotted $325 million to the line, but access to those coffers won’t come until a full funding contract is signed.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said in a statement Wednesday that his agency would work closely with the U.S. Transportation Department to get the funding agreement rolling.

Friends of the Crescent Trail has long argued that by allowing construction to start early, the court jeopardizes the surrounding environment.

John Fitzgerald, an environmental attorney and plaintiff in the lawsuit against Maryland, said on Wednesday that the D.C. Circuit’s stay was unfair since “the law prohibits federal funding for a new project unless a region can afford to maintain and operate its existing transportation system.”

“Given the challenges facing Metro, the cuts in Metro and bus service levels, and the fact that Maryland would raid [Maryland Area Regional Commuter, or MARC] train revenue to pay for the Purple Line debt, that finding is impossible to make,” Fitzgerald said.

Tina Slater, treasurer of Purple Line NOW, a group devoted to completion of the project, said via email Thursday that her organization is hopeful authorities “will see the project through the remaining federal steps to groundbreaking.”

“The Federal Transit Administration had been only days away from a signing ceremony on a Full Funding Grant Agreement when the project was put on an unwarranted hold,” she said. “We were heartened when the FTA joined the appeal and hope they will quickly execute the Purple Line’s Full Funding Grant Agreement, so construction can begin without further costly delays.”

The Purple Line will feature 21 stations and will be powered via overhead electrical lines. It’s expected to carry passengers as soon as 2022 but the launch date will likely be postponed because of the delays in court.

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