DALLAS – Maryland is urging a federal appeals court to speed up the state’s effort to overturn a lower court order that has halted work for almost a year on its proposed $5.6 billion Purple Line light rail system being financed as a public-private partnership.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a motion July 3 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia asking the court to expedite the hearing schedule by ordering briefings to begin by July 20 and end no later than Aug. 24. At that point, the court likely would hear oral arguments before issuing a decision.
Work on the P3 project came to an abrupt halt in early August 2016 when U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the Federal Transit Administration had failed to consider whether ridership declines and maintenance problems on Washington Area Mass Transit Authority’s Metro system would result in fewer passengers transferring to or from the Purple Line.
The Aug. 2 order canceled the project’s federal environmental clearance just days before Maryland was to have signed the Purple Line’s full funding agreement for a $900 million federal New Starts grant from the FTA.
Leon’s halt has “already caused financial harm to the state, threatens further losses to the state and its taxpayers, and promises to deprive the public of the many benefits that would result from the project,” Frosh said in the motion. “With each passing day, the continued delay costs the state millions of dollars and places the project in greater jeopardy.”
The potential losses include the $545 million that the state has already spent on the Purple Line, $150 million in delay costs, and $200 million if it has to terminate the 36-year concession contract signed last year with the private partners to build and operate the system, Frosh said.
“That delay greatly increases the probability that the project will need to be abandoned to prevent further financial harm to the state,” he said.
Congress appropriated $100 million for the Purple Line in fiscal year 2015, another $100 million in fiscal year 2016, and an additional $125 million in fiscal year 2017 in anticipation of the release of the $900 million FTA grant. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which would be served by the Purple Line, have also committed approximately $335 million to the project.
Maryland has already spent $325 million of state tax dollars that it had expected to be reimbursed by the federal funding, and those expenditures could require the Maryland DOT to “begin delaying or eliminating other transportation projects from the state’s transportation plans to make up the shortfall,” Frosh said.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn on June 1 ordered a halt to pre-construction planning and engineering work by the state and its contractors on the Purple Line. Rahn said the state could not afford the project costs totaling $13 million per month without the federal funding.
Attorneys for the state asked the appeals court on June 21 to reverse Leon’s order by issuing an emergency order that would allow Maryland to access the $325 million approved by Congress while the appeal proceeds. The court has yet to rule on that request.
Leon said in a 12-page ruling on June 26 that he would not reinstate the project’s federal environmental clearance, despite the state’s plea to the appeals court for an emergency order.
The state put itself at risk by signing the concession agreement while an environmental lawsuit filed in 2014 was still before his court, Leon said.
Leon rejected the FTA’s contention that the Purple Line would be viable even if no Metro riders used the system.