At­tor­ney gen­eral asks court to force judge to rule on Pur­ple Line law­suit

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY KATHERINE SHAVER katherine.shaver@wash­post.com

Mary­land’s at­tor­ney gen­eral asked an ap­pel­late court Fri­day to re­quire a fed­eral judge to de­cide a law­suit block­ing con­struc­tion of the state’s planned Pur­ple Line, say­ing court de­lays have “brought this project to the brink of can­cel­la­tion.”

The pe­ti­tion for a “writ of man­damus” asks the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the District of Columbia Cir­cuit to re­quire that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon rule on a gov­ern­ment mo­tion to dis­miss the 2014 law­suit filed by Pur­ple Line op­po­nents.

If there is no rul­ing by June 1, the state won’t have enough money to con­tinue pre-con­struc­tion work, ac­cord­ing to the pe­ti­tion filed by lawyers for At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian E. Frosh (D). At that point, the pe­ti­tion says, the state “likely” would di­rect con­trac­tors to stop de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing work on the light-rail project.

Sus­pend­ing that work, the fil­ing says, would add sig­nif­i­cant costs and could re­sult in the 16-mile project be­ing can­celed.

“The fate of the Pur­ple Line hangs in the bal­ance,” the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice wrote. “. . . That fate should be de­ter­mined by pol­icy mak­ers re­spon­si­ble for the project and ac­count­able to the pub­lic — or, if by a court, on the mer­its of the claim — rather than as a side-ef­fect of in­ac­tion by the district court.”

A writ of man­damus re­quires a lower-court judge or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial to ful­fill his or her of­fi­cial du­ties. The pe­ti­tion noted that such an ac­tion is an “ex­tra­or­di­nary rem­edy” that courts don’t “lightly grant” but said Leon’s han­dling of the case had cre­ated an “ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stance.”

Mary­land of­fi­cials have said waiting for Leon’s rul­ing has added $13 mil­lion ev­ery month to the line’s con­struc­tion costs and could jeop­ar­dize a $5.6 bil­lion pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship to build and op­er­ate the line over 36 years. Can­cel­ing the project, state of­fi­cials said, could cost the state more than $800 mil­lion in lost plan­ning in­vest­ments and con­tract ter­mi­na­tion costs.

Mary­land of­fi­cials need Leon to re­in­state the project’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­proval be­fore they can try to se­cure $900 mil­lion in fed­eral con­struc­tion fund­ing. Leon re­voked that ap­proval in Au­gust af­ter agree­ing with the law­suit’s plain­tiffs that state and fed­eral tran­sit agen­cies hadn’t suf­fi­ciently con­sid­ered the im­pact of Metro’s de­clin­ing rid­er­ship on the fu­ture Pur­ple Line’s rid­er­ship.

The plain­tiffs — two Chevy Chase res­i­dents and the ad­vo­cacy group Friends of the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail — say the Pur­ple Line’s rid­er­ship fore­casts are flawed be­cause they didn’t ac­count for Metro’s re­cent safety prob­lems and de­clin­ing rid­er­ship. The Pur­ple Line be­tween Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties would be op­er­ated sep­a­rately from Metro, but Metro rid­ers are ex­pected to ac­count for about 27 per­cent of the light-rail line’s pas­sen­gers.

In re­vok­ing the project’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­proval, Leon wrote that state and fed­eral tran­sit agen­cies had shown a “seem­ingly cav­a­lier at­ti­tude” in ini­tially dis­miss­ing any po­ten­tial Metro im­pacts.

Fed­eral tran­sit of­fi­cials said in De­cem­ber that fur­ther anal­y­sis had shown that Metro would have no sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on the Pur­ple Line. But the plain­tiffs have said Metro’s po­ten­tial im­pacts are just one rea­son the light-rail line should be stopped, also cit­ing its cost and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

In ad­di­tion to ques­tions about the rid­er­ship fore­cast, the state’s fil­ing says Leon has yet to rule on 23 other is­sues in the case.

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