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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Friends of Capital Crescent Trail v. FTA

Case No.

2016 WL 6901251

Court

U.S. District Court - Washington DC

State

Maryland

Date

11/22/2016

Project

Purple Line

Project Type

Transit

Project Description

The Purple Line is a proposed 16.2-mile light rail transit project in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland. The Purple Line would be owned and operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). The Purple Line would connect at four stations to Metrorail, a heavy-rail subway system that is owned and operated by a separate entity, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The FTA and MTA projected that approximately 27% of Purple Line riders would use Metrorail as part of their trip. The agencies prepared an EIS for the project, and FTA issued a ROD on March 19, 2014. The plaintiffs submitted a letter on October 9, 2015, requesting that the agencies prepare an SEIS for the Purple Line for multiple reasons, including Metrorail’s declining ridership and recent safety issues. MTA and FTA responded that an SEIS was not warranted because Metrorail was a separate system and its ridership, safety, and financial issues had no relationship to the environmental impacts of the Purple Line.

Case Summary

The plaintiffs argued that the agencies should have prepared a SEIS to consider the impact of Metrorail’s declining ridership and recent safety issues. In a prior decision (August 3, 2016), the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the agencies should have considered these issues. The court vacated the ROD and remanded to the agencies for preparation of a SEIS to consider Metrorail’s ridership and safety issues. FTA and Maryland then filed motions to alter or amend the court’s judgment. In this order, the court modified its prior ruling and allowed the agencies to assess whether a full SEIS would be necessary. The court also declined the agencies’ request to reinstate the ROD during remand.

Key Holdings

NEPA

Need for a Supplemental EIS. The court reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that FTA had been arbitrary and capricious in deciding not to prepare an SEIS, because the agency had “wholly failed to consider the impact that ... Metrorail’s recent safety and ridership issues could have on the Purple Line Project.”  Nonetheless, the court agreed with FTA and MTA that “a significance determination like this is the sort of decision that requires a high level of technical expertise that would benefit from the informed discretion of the responsible federal agencies.” The court concluded that “the agency initially declined to consider a subset of relevant information whatsoever, and now must be given the opportunity in the first instance to consider the information fully, rather than have the court step in and conduct the significance analysis itself.”  Therefore, the court modified its earlier decision to allow FTA and MTA an opportunity to assess new information regarding WMATA safety and ridership issues and to determine whether that new information requires preparation of an SEIS.  The court also adopted the agencies’ proposed order that set a schedule for them to conduct that assessment.

Litigation Procedure

Vacatur of ROD. The court denied the agencies’ request to reinstate the ROD during remand. The court explained that vacatur is the standard remedy for a NEPA violation, and that the appropriateness of vacatur depends on (1) the seriousness of the deficiencies and (2) the potentially disruptive consequences that could flow from vacatur. As to the first factor, the court held that the agencies’ decision to summarily disregard new information was a serious deficiency, which was underscored by the size, scope, and cost of the project. On the second factor, the court explained that although vacatur may result in substantial delays, costs, and logistical difficulties, there would also be disruptive consequences from allowing the project to proceed before the agencies completed the required environmental review. “Vacatur ensures that the project will proceed only with the benefit of a fully fleshed out consideration of the issues required by NEPA.”

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