DC Judge Unravels Challenge by Light-Rail Opponents

WASHINGTON (CN) – After putting D.C.’s $2.5 billion light-rail project on indefinite hold for safety reasons last month, a federal judge is speaking out about where the challengers went wrong with their unrelated environmental claims.

Developers of the Purple Line, a 16-mile rail line that will stretch from Bethesda, Maryland, to New Carrollton, in Prince George’s County, have been working to get construction underway since the Federal Transportation Authority 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 June 9 follow-up opinion to his final judgment in the case, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon explained that the environmental issues raised by Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail were conflated in some cases and flatly incorrect in others.

“Plaintiffs do not identify any fatal flaw in the [environmental impact statement], instead their claims boil down to an argument that the agencies did not consider certain issues with the level of detail they would have liked, or did not reach the substantive conclusion they desired, but that is not sufficient,” the 24-page opinion states.

For one, Leon found, the conservation group lacks a sufficient basis to voice concern about how stormwater runoff will affect the Hay Spring’s amphipod, a small endangered crustacean native to the waterways near D.C.’s  Rock Creek Park.

Indeed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that there were not even any crustacean in the area when it conducted an impact study in 2014, and that even if they were, they would not meet their doom because of Purple Line construction.

Leon also said that the conservation group’s claims of inadequate reporting on the impact of stormwater runoff altogether were unfounded.

“The record shows that the [Federal Transit Administration] did consider and explain the project’s storm water effects during the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act review] process and subsequently developed a detailed, comprehensive Concept Storm Water Management Report after the preferred alternative was selected, as they are permitted to do,” Leon wrote. “Plaintiffs argument simply boils down to a claim that the agencies should have assessed the project’s storm water effects in more detail and not at an earlier stage than they did.”

Leon additionally shot down the group’s claims that the Federal Transit Administration withheld proprietary data on ridership forecasts.

“Defendants did not rely on or withhold any proprietary data; they made their ridership data available to the plaintiffs and told them how to they could purchase their own license to run the proprietary software,” the opinion states. “NEPA obligates agencies to make information reasonably available to the public, it does not obligate government agencies to purchase and provide commercially available software for private parties.” (Emphasis in original)

Anne Spielberg, an attorney who also sits on the board of the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, called the Purple Line “high cost, no benefit” in a statement last week.

 “In my community in Silver Spring, the trains will run within a few yards of neighbors’ front yards and in mixed traffic, with dangers particularly for children attending the public middle and elementary schools located on the route,” Spielberg said. “Meanwhile, the Purple Line’s huge costs divert the resources needed to support the true mobility, small business creation and economic development that would benefit a much larger share of the area and of Maryland populations.”

One example, Spielberg said, is Maryland’s postponement of plans for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus system that could serve a bustling corridor of northern Montgomery County.

The Maryland Transit Authority has reported that more than 70 percent of the riders who would have access to the new light rail already use public transit.

 Co-plaintiff and environmental consultant Christine Real de Azua sees this as further proof of problems with the Purple Line.

 “Merely shifting most riders from one transit form to another – at such a high cost – further undermines a claim to “public interest,” Real de Azua said in a statement last week. 

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