At its very best, Maryland's ambitious 16-mile Purple Line light-rail project intends to help ease travel in the jam-packed Washington, DC, suburbs of Bethesda and Silver Spring, MD, as well as showcase the financial power and efficiency the private sector could bring to the table through public-private partnerships (P3s).
Sure, there have been minor squabbles over which county would contribute how much funding, and even Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the rail when he decided to reduce the state's contribution and implement more than $200 million in design cuts.
When the state announced that it had finalized a deal in June with the Fluor-led Purple Line Transit Partners (PLTP) to design, build, operate and maintain the system, the project had turned into a $5.6 billion contract — becoming Maryland's most expensive government contract in history and one of the largest P3s in U.S. history. A $900 million promise from the Federal Transit Administration and private financing secured through the P3, however, ameliorated some of the sticker shock and paved the way for a fall construction start.
Or so state and federal officials thought.
A few years ago, a determined group of Chevy Chase, MD, residents decided they would rather keep their quiet, leafy, tree-lined trail — a de facto park since the late 1980s — as a recreation spot without trains speeding by, so they began the legal work necessary to try to prevent it. And just a few days before project proponents had planned to gather to celebrate the arrival of full FTA funding, a federal judge, who found merit in the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail (FCCT) lawsuit, stopped the whole thing in its tracks.
Opposing sides argue their cases
If you ask Ralph Bennett, board president of Purple Line NOW (PLN) — an advocacy group formed to support the project — the wealthy and privileged residents of Chevy Chase have mounted this attack in a demonstration of NIMBYism at its worst. He said the FCCT has been opposed to the project since the beginning, and, in his opinion, it is trying to delay the rail line long enough so that supporters will abandon it.
But on what issues exactly did the judge rule? Although Ajay Bhatt, FCCT president, said the group filed its action around several issues — noise, safety, stormwater flow and environmental impacts — U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated both the FTA's and the Maryland Transit Administration's approval of the project over potentially leaner ridership numbers than were originally presented by project officials.
As part of his decision, Judge Leon ordered that the agencies prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that reflects current DC Metro ridership. Although the Purple Line is not part of the Metro system and is instead run by the MTA, project officials relied on those numbers to project its own ridership. In addition, during oral arguments, Judge Leon commented that it would make "common sense" for the MTA to take a look at Metro maintenance and declining ridership issues if it were going to tout the Purple Line as a connector to the Metro.
Bhatt said a new review also requires the FTA and MTA to lay out alternatives to the new Purple Line, which he said might be more attractive and cost-effective if the ridership numbers are not where they have to be in order to make the project viable. The FCCT said a rapid transit bus system would be a suitable alternative, as Christine Real de Azua, FCCT treasurer, told officials at a public hearing in Silver Spring earlier this week.
Bhatt said he believes the state should be building for a future full of driverless cars and sensor-based traffic flow, not a potentially riderless boondoggle that, as part of the P3, would require the state to pay $150 million annually for 30 years of maintenance. In addition, Bhatt claims that the lack of a 100% dedicated line for the project could result in as many traffic delays as there are now because rail cars would travel both aside automobile lanes and within them along certain stretches of the route.
Despite the two organization's opposing views, PLN said that even though clear cutting a 3-mile swath of forest to make way for the Purple Line is necessary, the project also includes improvements to the trail, which was purchased by Montgomery County as both a transit and recreational property. Bhatt argued that in the almost-30 years it's taken for the state or county to move on development, the citizens have established another use for the land. However, because it's not been designated as an official park, he said its loss did not have to be factored into any cost-benefit analysis.
What's next for the controversial project
Since the judge's ruling in August, the MTA and FTA have submitted a formal request that the judge reconsider his decision. "He has been sitting on the request for 60 days," Bennett said, despite amicus briefs from both Prince George's and Montgomery counties describing the hardship that they will have to endure if the Purple Line does not move forward. Although engineering work for the line has continued, if the project does not begin construction by the end of the month, Bennett said that claims could rise to $5 million-$10 million a month.
He added that the judge also took a lot of time on the FCCT action, which was filed in 2014. "It took the judge several months to look through all of their information as well," he said.
Bennett said the bottom line is the fact that the lawsuit is preventing a project that will ultimately benefit the community and provide more mobility options for an area that has been historically underserved by mass transit. "It's frustrating," he said. "There's already $300 million invested in the project that can't be given back," as preconstruction work has alrady begun.
Bhatt said, "We are pro-transit," despite claims by others that the wealthy residents of Chevy Chase would never deign to take public transportation anyway. "We would love to see a robust transit system in DC and federal government dollars being put to good use." The DC Metro system, he said, is in need of billions of dollars for repairs and improvement, and Bhatt said he believes that would be a better use of funds. He said the potential money grab for states and counties is too big to ignore, but, at the same time, "If you're going to do something, do it right."