By Eileen Houlihan, senior writer/editor, ARTBA

ARTBA hailed the Dec. 19 federal appeals court decision to overrule a lower court ruling blocking the Maryland Purple Line light-rail project, one of the nation’s most high profile transit public-private partnerships. The decision adds to ARTBA’s notable legal victories and other efforts at regulatory relief on the transportation construction industry’s behalf.

The association told the appeals court that not allowing the Purple Line to proceed posed grave risks for future transportation projects and was an abuse of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The ruling provides a clear notice that NEPA is not intended to be used as a tool to endlessly delay critically needed transportation infrastructure projects.

The nearly $6 billion Purple Line in Washington, D.C.’s northern suburbs, which secured $900 million in federal funding, had been mired in litigation since 2014 by a small group of citizen activists opposed to construction of the project. In August 2016, a lower court judge halted construction, asserting the Federal Transit Administration had failed to consider declining ridership on the D.C. Metro system.

Both the federal government and the state of Maryland appealed the decision contending there was no obligation under NEPA to consider ridership on the entire regional transit system as part of the Purple Line approval process. In an August 2017 amicus brief to the court, ARTBA said the lower court ruling was an abuse of the NEPA process and warned, if left standing, the ruling could have a chilling effect on future transportation infrastructure project approvals across the U.S.

“If plaintiffs or courts can upend the culmination of the onerous NEPA process for economic or policy reasons having nothing to do with the environment, the ensuing uncertainty and delay would discourage public and private investment needed to rebuild and improve the country’s transportation infrastructure,” ARTBA said.

The federal appeals court agreed with ARTBA, noting the decision not to consider Metro ridership was “precisely the type of judgment implicating substantial agency expertise to which the court owes deference.” The court further agreed with ARTBA’s argument that NEPA had been misused by the project opponents, stating, “NEPA does not require agencies to needlessly repeat their environmental impact analyses every time such information comes to light.”

Preliminary work on the 16-mile Purple Line began in August, with several ARTBA members part of the project team. Passenger service on the 21-station line is expected to begin in 2022.