Federal Judge’s Delay Tactics Threaten to Halt Maryland’s Purple Line

The stalling of federal judge Richard Leon threatens Maryland's Purple Line light rail, which would connect to the Washington Metro at four locations, plus Amtrak and MARC commuter rail. Image: Maryland MTA
The stalling of federal judge Richard Leon threatens Maryland's Purple Line light rail, which would connect to the Washington Metro at four locations, plus Amtrak and MARC commuter rail. Image: Maryland MTA

The Purple Line, a light rail project connecting Maryland’s Washington, DC, suburbs, has been bogged down since 2014 by a lawsuit from a group of wealthy NIMBYs. Now, thanks to the inaction of U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon, the process is dragging on even longer — and the delays are threatening to kill the project entirely.

The Purple Line is backed by Governor Larry Hogan, who came out in support in 2015 when he cancelled the Red Line rail line in Baltimore. It’s also supported by numerous other local and state politicians, as well as the Washington Post editorial board. But the opinion that matters right now, it seems, is Judge Leon’s.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon. Photo: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon. Photo: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In a ruling last August, Leon told planners he wanted revised ridership estimates. Because one in four Purple Line passengers are expected to transfer to the Washington Metro, Leon surmised that the subway’s struggling ridership could negatively affect the Purple Line. In November, Leon allowed the Federal Transit Administration and the state of Maryland to submit a report addressing his concerns, rather than starting the environmental review over from scratch.

The next month, the transit agencies gave Leon their report: After Metro’s struggles are accounted for, the Purple Line would attract 67,000 daily riders by 2040, they estimated. Even if there are no transfers between Metro and light rail, the FTA said, it would still be “one of the most robust light-rail systems” the agency has ever funded.

Since receiving the report five months ago, Leon has been silent. If he continues to delay and the project is not allowed to proceed before the end of the fiscal year, it could lose federal funding that’s been set aside.

The Purple Line can only move forward if Leon issues a decision, Nick Sementelli at Greater Greater Washington explains:

To be clear, the problem isn’t that Judge Leon rejected the analysis and upheld his previous ruling; that decision could at least be appealed. The problem is that he has literally done nothing either way. With the possibility for federal funding in jeopardy of expiring in just a few months, that inaction increasingly seems like a deliberate strategy to “run out the clock.” At a cost of $13 million for every month of delay, Judge Leon’s negligence is also costing taxpayers an unnecessary expense.

Judge Leon and Purple Line opponents seem to be hoping the stall tactics will pass by unnoticed until it’s too late… Let’s do our part and keep the public pressure on: we need to keep the Purple Line in the spotlight.

GGW has started a petition asking Judge Leon to do his job and release a decision as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s attorney general asked a federal appeals court to require Judge Leon to issue a ruling, and the appeals court has begun the process of considering that request.

Other recommended reading today: The Source, official blog of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has details on that transit agency’s newly-announced, three-year effort to redesign its bus network. Better Burque praises the Albuquerque Journal for humanizing the victims of traffic violence by reporting on Olivier Kamndon, a Central African Republic refugee who made it to New Mexico only to be seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. And PlanCharlotte reports on that city’s latest update to its bicycle master plan, but notes that the real work will come when it’s time to implement the recommendations.

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