By Nick Goldstein, vice president of regulatory affairs & assistant general counsel, ARTBA

Maryland’s $6 billion Purple Line light-rail project, which was to have begun construction by now, remains stalled in legal limbo.

Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Nov. 21 upheld an earlier decision that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) must consider the safety and ridership issues faced by the Washington Metro transit system as part of the environmental analysis of the Purple Line.

His decision is nuanced in that rather than ordering FTA to complete a new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the agency must consider the Metro ridership and safety issues, then determine whether an additional SEIS is warranted. Leon also refused to reinstate the FTA’s Record of Decision (ROD) for the project, ruling the ridership and safety issues required further study by the agency.

Leon’s ruling represents another example of opponents using lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to derail transportation improvements. ARTBA has long fought to reform NEPA to reduce such litigation, which delay or stop transportation projects, jeopardizing jobs and other economic development.

It remains to be seen what FTA will do next. The agency can appeal Leon’s decision, but may decline to do so since the judge has allowed it to determine whether another SEIS is necessary. If FTA determines it is not needed, the decision may be subject to additional litigation by project opponents.

The 16-mile Purple Line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County is one of the nation’s largest public-private partnerships for a transportation project. Several ARTBA members are part of the project team approved earlier this year.

ARTBA will continue to monitor this situation.