DALLAS -- Time may be running out for Maryland’s $5.6 billion Purple Line P3 rail project now that a federal judge has extended a delay of the 16-mile rail project until more ridership studies can be carried out.

The fate of Maryland’s Purple Line light rail system looks gloomy after federal judge orders more reviews of the $5.6 billion P3 project.
The fate of Maryland’s Purple Line light rail system looks gloomy after federal judge orders more reviews of the $5.6 billion P3 project.

State officials have said they would have to shut down planning and design work for the project on June 1 if there is “no foreseeable path” toward resolution of the lawsuit delaying the project. Maryland would have 60 days to decide whether to back out of the P3 agreement signed with private investors last year. The state could face termination costs of almost $900 million if the project is halted.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon on Monday said that state and federal transit officials must redo the Purple Line's ridership forecasts because they hadn't taken into consideration whether demand for the Purple Line could be hurt by the ridership and safety issues that have plagued the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority’s Metrorail system.

Leon halted the project in August 2016 after plaintiffs in an environmental lawsuit contended that the Federal Transit Administration erred when it did not consider the likelihood that declining ridership of the Metrorail system due to extensive maintenance problems could result in fewer passengers using the Purple Line. The judge refused the FTA’s request in November to reinstate the project’s environmental clearance so it could proceed.

Maryland transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a recent court filing that if the project is canceled the state could lose the $545 million already spent on Purple Line planning and design, more than $200 million in contract termination costs, and up to $150 million of other delay costs.

The judge’s decision to extend the delay was “incredibly disappointing, but not entirely surprising,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“The fact that it took a federal judge this long to reach the conclusion that more study is needed is completely baffling and, if allowed to stand, will cause irreparable harm to this vital project and cost the state hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars,” Hogan said in a release. “This is not a political issue — it’s an important transportation and transit priority for Maryland and the region that has strong bipartisan support.”

The state will continue to “pursue any and all legal action to ensure that the Purple Line will move forward,” Hogan said.

The state and the FTA should file an appeal as soon as possible, said Ralph Bennett, president of the advocacy group Purple Line Now.

“The judge is behaving in a way consistent with wanting to kill the project by delay,” Bennett said. “The slapdash and tardy ruling outright ignores much of the expert testimony that has already answered questions raised again by the court. Judge Leon has given ample grounds for appeal and we trust that the fundamental strength of the project will be vindicated in higher court.”

The state cannot continue to fund the activity during the judge's delay of the project, Bennett said.

“There’s going to be a point where we run out of money and say we just can't do it,” he said.

The halt in August came just five days before Maryland officials were set to sign a $900 million New Starts agreement with the FTA for the project. President Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal 2018 would stop any New Starts funding for projects without a signed funding agreement by the beginning of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Current projections show that Metro ridership could go down by 3.7% to as much as 27.4% by 2040, Leon noted in his 12-page ruling.

“After careful consideration of the motions, the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, I find that defendants have failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential impact that WMATA’s ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line project,” he said.

Maryland signed a contract with Purple Line Transit Partners in April 2016 that requires the private investors to finance about $1 billion of the line’s $1.99 billion construction costs, build it over six years, and then operate and maintain the system for 30 years. The state would make monthly availability payments averaging $150 million per year.

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