Money Woes Won’t Sway Judge on Purple Line Construction

WASHINGTON (CN) – Calling it unlikely that Maryland’s appeal will overcome a challenge to its 16-mile light rail, a federal judge refused to let the state continue Purple Line construction.

Though the rail line’s developers have been working to get construction underway since 2014, when they first received Federal Transportation Authority approval, conservationists at Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail tied the project up in court shortly thereafter.

Predicting unforeseen ramifications to surrounding ecosystem in Rock Creek Park, the group claims that regulators signed off on the project without performing an adequate analysis.

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. Leon called for a supplemental environmental impact statement, known as an SEIS, but cracked down on regulators again last month for failing to take the “hard look” he demanded.

Maryland wanted a stay pending its appeal to the D.C. Circuit, saying it loses $13 million for every month of delay, but Leon shot the request down on June 26.

“Although this is a significant amount, it is axiomatic that economic losses alone do not warrant emergency equitable relief,” the 12-page ruling states.

Maryland had been counting on nearly $900 million in federal grants but says it may have to squash the project altogether, triggering multimillion-dollar contract cancellation fees.

Refusing to grant a stay on this basis, however, Judge Leon noted that Maryland entered into the contract at issue “in April 2016, a little less than two years after this suit was filed and almost two months after plaintiffs filed their motion for summary judgment.” (Emphasis in original.)

“As a result, Maryland was explicitly on notice that plaintiffs were asking me to vacate the record of decision and could have structured its public-private arrangements to better protect its financial interest in the event of that possibility,” the ruling continues.

Maryland’s decision to spend money on preconstruction activities during this period was “self-imposed,” Leon added.

“A stay pending an appeal is not intended to inoculate a party against the risk of litigation, nor is it the court’s role to grant emergency relief to protect a party from the consequences of its own fully-informed decisions,” the ruling also states.

Another section of the ruling details the balance of potential harms and the public interest.

“For both factors, Maryland makes essentially the argument that the public stands to gain helpful transportation benefits, economic development and increased jobs in the region as a result of the project and that a stay pending appeal will permit Maryland to obtain federal funding and proceed with construction of the Purple Lien project,” the ruling states. “But these arguments are about the merits of the project itself and thus miss the mark. The question for granting a stay is not whether the underlying project is, in the final analysis, in the public interest. Instead, the issue is whether a stay pending appeal is in the public interest and whether the state should obtain federal funding that is essentially non-refundable to go forward with irreversible project construction now, while critical [environmental impact] analysis remains incomplete. They have not made that showing here!” (Emphasis in original.)

The D.C. Circuit has yet to rule on whether environmental approval will be reinstated.

A representative from the Purple Line Transit Partners, the state’s contractor for the project, has not returned a request for comment.

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