After two rulings that have resulted in a year of delays for the Purple Line, backers of the light rail project have finally gotten a break.
An appeals court ruled Wednesday that Maryland can continue working on the project even as a lawsuit continues, overturning a lower court decision that put work on ice. Most critically, it means that the state can pursue hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for the project, which would connect 16 miles between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
“The order will allow construction to commence and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to keep the Purple Line moving forward,” Maryland State Attorney Brian Frosh said yesterday.
Republican Governor Larry Hogan gave the project a surprise green light two years ago. Construction was slated to begin in late 2016 on the 16.2-mile light rail line. It would be run by the Maryland Transit Administration, not Metro, though there are connections to the Red, Green, and Orange lines along some of the 21 stops.
But it has faced fierce opposition from an organized group of neighbors, who at one point considered focusing their fight on the environmental impact to a tiny, shrimp-like creature.
Instead, they’ve had successes arguing that transit officials failed to sufficiently account for the impact of Metro’s safety and ridership issues. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in August of 2016 that the MTA needed to re-do its ridership calculations. This May, the same judge said that the state hadn’t sufficiently completed a “hard look” at the issues posed by WMATA and ordered additional study.
The project’s backers worried that it could mean the end of the line for the Purple Line, as it put already appropriated federal funds in jeopardy and meant the state couldn’t proceed on work or seek more federal funding.
Yesterday’s ruling overturned the 2016 decision, and reinstated the Purple Line’s federal environmental approval.
“The Purple Line is essential for access to jobs, for revitalization inside the Beltway, and for providing a transportation and smart growth option that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We hope this means that the full funding grant agreement can be executed and funding flow to the project.”
The Department of Transportation will now determine if there is enough certainty to sign a funding agreement and begin dispensing the hundreds of millions of federal dollars that have already been appropriated.