Judge Derails Construction of DC’s Purple Line

WASHINGTON (CN) – Putting D.C.’s $2.5 billion light-rail project on indefinite hold, a federal judge slammed transportation authorities for ignoring his order to review ridership and safety issues.

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 their 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 directing 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.

As Leon laid out in a new grant of partial summary judgment for the conservationists, the FTA’s response over the past year has impressed him even less.

Leon’s May 22 opinion says regulators failed to take the “hard look” he demanded.

Indeed the December 2016 memorandum that the FTA issued, telling the court that it did not think it necessary to complete the review Leon requested, relied on a Nov. 3 technical assessment that actually preceded Leon’s last ruling.

Leon noted that Maryland authorities butted in as well, “effectively demanding that the court issue a ruling on all remaining issues no later than April 28, arguing that the Purple Line ‘hangs in the balance’ and is on the ‘brink of cancellation’ if the ROD [record of decision] is not reinstated immediately.”

Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail noted in their renewed motion for summary judgment that the agencies have no one but themselves to blame for the protracted litigation when they chose to fight the necessity of the study Leon ordered rather than simply preparing one.

Leon’s latest ruling slams the FTA for blindly arguing that it could proceed with any of “five wildly disparate scenarios” on ridership trends it laid out in its December analysis, with “exactly the same construction footprint (and therefore the same environmental impact).”

“In effect, FTA boldly concluded that there is no need for an SEIS, and the Purple Line will meet its established purposes, no matter what happens to WMATA Metrorail,” Leon wrote (emphasis in original). “To say the least, this is a curious conclusion.”

Leon also slammed the FTA for not considering expert declarations provided by the Purple Line’s opponents.

“To be clear, I am not suggesting the FTA was obligated to defer to the substantive conclusions in those declarations,” Leon wrote.

“However,” the judge added,” the fact that the agency is entitled to its own discretion does not mean that it can disregard materials that were included in the administrative record on remand.”

Leon said the FTA as to try again and prepare the SEIS as soon as possible.

Track fires have become a regular occurrence at the aging WMATA in recent years, breaking out almost exclusively during the height of morning or evening rush hour. Commuters have also had to contend with collisions and close shaves caused by malfunctioning safety switches, while multiple lines across the region are in a near-constant state of repair, leading to consistent delays as various trains are forced to share to single track.

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