DALLAS -- Maryland may have to terminate the $5.6 billion Purple Line light rail project being financed as a public-private partnership unless a federal judge restores the project’s environmental clearance by Aug. 1, the state said in seeking an emergency order ending the court-ordered halt.
Attorneys for the state said the ruling in August 2016 by District Judge Richard J. Leon to terminate the environmental permits for the proposed light rail line through the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., is preventing the state from accessing a $900 million federal grant for the project.
The state cannot afford to go ahead with the Purple Line without the New Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration, according to the June 21 filing.
“If not stayed or reversed before August 1, 2017, that order could cause the state to cancel the project, resulting in a financial loss to the state of approximately $800 million,” the state said in the June 22 motion filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Leon vacated the Purple Line’s environmental approval last year just days before Maryland would have signed a full funding agreement for a $900 million New Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration for the 16-mile rail line.
Leon ordered a new supplemental environmental review of the project in late May after agreeing with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop the Purple Line that Maryland had failed to adequately reexamine the impact of ridership declines and maintenance problems on Washington Area Mass Transit Authority’s Metro system.
The Purple Line would not be part of Metro, but it will connect to four Metro stations, and more than a quarter of the Purple Line’s riders are expected to be Metro passengers feeding into the light rail system.
The Purple Line has broad support in the region, said Maryland transportation secretary Pete Rahn, who urged the appeals court to rule quickly on the emergency order.
“After decades of review and public involvement, holding the congressionally appropriated funds hostage is not fair to the taxpayers of Maryland,” he said. “We are asking the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to expeditiously grant our stay, opening the door for federal funding.”
Rahn ordered a stop on June 1 to engineering and other pre-construction work on the project.
The state said it asked for the emergency order after a hearing in Leon’s court on June 15, when the judge “made it clear that [he] will not rule promptly” in the case, which began with the filing in 2014 of a federal lawsuit by two area residents and an environmental group.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed Attorney General Brian Frosh in May to seek a writ from the federal appeals court ordering Leon to decide whether the project could proceed.
Hogan criticized Leon for the delay in April, telling reporters at a news conference that the judge had a home at a country club that was fighting the project and that his wife belonged to an anti-Purple Line neighborhood group. It was later determined that Leon lived several miles from the club and that Mrs. Leon never personally lobbied against the project.
Maryland had expected to use the New Starts grant to fund its share of the $2 billion cost of building the rail line.
President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 would cut $1 billion from the New Starts grant program. The administration wants to terminate grants to projects without a signed full funding agreement, but the budget request for fiscal 2018 issued in May includes $325 million for the Purple Line if an agreement is signed before Oct. 1, 2018.