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

Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has stopped most pre-construction work on the $6 billion light-rail project in the Washington, D.C., suburbs as the state appeals the remaining legal roadblock to the public-private partnership (P3).

Rahn issued a seven-point directive, effective June 1, which includes a hiring freeze and halt to executing new contracts. The 16-mile Purple Line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County received a state green light last year and by now should have been leaning into its first full summer of construction. Several ARTBA members are part of the project team, Purple Line Transit Partners.

The project was delayed by development opponents using lawsuits under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to block transportation improvements, jeopardizing jobs and other economic development.

On May 30, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon dismissed most of a Purple Line lawsuit, saying the environmental review did not violate federal protections on endangered species and migratory birds. Later the same day, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office announced that it is appealing the remaining portion of the lawsuit, which requires the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to consider ridership problems faced by the nearby Washington Metro transit system. Project opponents said they are considering whether to appeal Leon’s dismissal of the environmental issues.

The ongoing legal wrangling is blocking Maryland’s access to $900 million in federal construction grants. This is what drove Rahn’s decision to further slow the project and “protect the taxpayers of Maryland.”

ARTBA is considering legal options to help this important P3 project move forward, in part to ensure that questionable legal precedents do not jeopardize other transportation improvements.