Judge gives Purple Line opponents hope in bid to halt construction

WASHINGTON — A federal judge suggested Wednesday that Purple Line construction could be halted, at least temporarily, even though much of the case is currently before an appellate court.

Judge Richard Leon said he would rule Friday on the latest effort by opponents of the Maryland light rail line to block construction, which began last week.

A previous, related lawsuit in the case held up the 16-mile transit line that will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stayed Leon’s ruling in that case earlier this summer.

“What’s the rush?” Leon asked a lawyer representing the state of Maryland who asked for a more complete ruling that could be appealed instead of the temporary restraining order opponents have asked for.

Purple Line Transit Partners, the private group that will build and operate the line, expects to move from clearing smaller trees and brush and putting in erosion and runoff controls in the Bethesda area to cutting down larger trees along the Georgetown Branch Trail as part of the next phase of construction around Sept. 18. Other construction is underway along the rest of the route.

If the construction is held up further, Maryland could lose more than $400,000 per day in costs or contract penalties.

Leon ordered the state to quantify the exact costs if would order the one-week delay as requested by the line’s opponents. The temporarily restraining order would block some major construction work until Sept. 25.

“I dont think that’s asking that much,” Leon said.

He scheduled a hearing in two weeks on a broader request for a longer-term preliminary injunction blocking construction.

The opponents of the line say their new lawsuit filed this week raises new issues, including specific concerns about construction along the Georgetown Branch Trail and Metro’s financial situation. Plans call for the construction of four Purple Line stations where riders will be able to transfer to or from the Metrorail system. The line would operate separately from Metro and would have a total of 21 stations.

“None of the facts that have occurred since early 2016 have been before this judge,” plaintiff John Fitzgerald said after the hearing.

Overall though, Leon acknowledged that the new lawsuit is closely intertwined with issues already before a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which made him leery of overstepping his authority.

“This is a real reach,” Leon told the plaintiffs’ lawyer. “I’ll give you an A+ for creativity.”

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