Purple Line construction moves forward after judge issues ruling

WASHINGTON — Purple Line construction can move forward and expand after a judge denied the latest requests to halt construction on Friday. Tree clearing along the Georgetown Branch trail will resume Monday.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon had declined to issue an immediate ruling on opponents’ request for a new halt to some or all construction, but plans for construction could continue in the meantime. He said any ruling either way would not come immediately, and a full opinion could take one month or more since the key issue in the case does not appear to have been litigated before in any court.

Opponents of the 16-mile, 21-stop Maryland light rail line argued Tuesday that the federal government failed to properly make legally required findings on the quality and funding of the existing regional transportation network and on the benefits of the Purple Line before signing a $900 million federal funding agreement this summer.

The state and federal government were ordered to submit those findings to the judge separately by Wednesday afternoon. Leon said though that the most that he would do in the next few weeks would be to issue a brief, appealable order in this case.

“Given the uncertainties on the timing and nature of future rulings from the Court, Purple Line Transit Partners and its contractors will resume clearing work on Monday, September 25,” the group building the line said Tuesday in a statement to WTOP.

Spokesman Chris Doherty had emphasized that the Georgetown Branch Trail remains a construction zone. Purple Line Transit Partners had previously agreed to hold off on cutting down large trees in that area until after Tuesday’s hearing.

A separate challenge from the same opponents of the light rail line is already before an appeals court panel. That three-judge panel blocked Leon’s earlier ruling in the case that had held up the start of construction on other grounds.

Leon raised concerns about whether he had the authority to rule in the new case since the other one is already due to be heard by the appellate panel in a few weeks.

The opponents of the line said this is a new case, with new claims that could be decided separately.

Lawyers for the state and federal government said this case is essentially the same claims as before, but in a different package.

In previous hearings, the state has said ramping up work only to have it blocked by a judicial ruling would increase costs. Maryland’s lawyer said any order halting tree clearing along the Georgetown Branch trail would essentially stop the project, costing $13 million per month. It would also delay the project beyond a scheduled completion date of 2022.

Opponents of the line questioned those projections and blamed the state and federal government for delays tied to the previous court case. They hope for a ruling from Leon soon.

Private companies are building and then will operate the light rail line for the state. The line will run from Bethesda to Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Sept. 19, 2017. It has been updated on Sept. 22, 2017 to reflect the latest information, which is the judge’s official ruling. 

WTOP’s Teta Alim contributed to this report. 

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