Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)
Case Law Update Details
Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail v. FTA
U.S. District Court - Washington DC
The Purple Line is a 16.2-mile light rail transit project in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued a Final EIS in 2013. In March 2014, FTA issued a Record of Decision (ROD) approving the project and entered into a Programmatic Agreement pursuant to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). In 2017, FTA approved a full funding grant agreement and committed $900 million in funding from the New Starts grant program.
This is the second of three lawsuits challenging the Purple Line. The first lawsuit involved challenges under NEPA and other environmental laws to the adequacy of the EIS and to FTA’s determinations that a supplemental EIS was not required. In December 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a decision in favor of MTA and FTA on all issues in that case.
In September 2017, while the appeal in the first case was pending, the same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit claiming that FTA had improperly approved the full funding grant agreement for the Purple Line by failing to make (or inadequately supporting) the required findings under the New Starts grant program and by violating the NHPA and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. In this ruling, the court held that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the lawsuit but also dismissed all the plaintiffs’ claims. The court ruled that the plaintiffs’ could not challenge FTA’s New Starts grant approval because their environmental interests were not within the “zone of interests” protected by the law authorizing the grant program. The court also ruled that the plaintiffs could not challenge the agencies’ alleged failure to comply with environmental mitigation commitments in the ROD because the agencies had not taken any final action. The court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ NHPA and Section 4(f) claims because they were filed after the applicable 150-day statute of limitations.
Standing. The court ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their lawsuit challenging the full funding grant agreement. To demonstrate standing, a litigant must show that (1) it has suffered a concrete and actual or imminent injury, (2) the injury is caused by the defendant’s conduct, and (3) the requested relief will remedy the injury. The court concluded that the plaintiffs suffered an injury that was caused by FTA’s funding of the project and could be remedied by setting aside the grant agreement: The plaintiffs were unable to use a pedestrian and bike path that was closed to allow construction of the project, and construction would likely stop if the grant agreement were rescinded and the project lost the $900 million in federal funding.
Administrative Procedure Act
Ability to Challenge Grant Approval. To bring a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act, a plaintiff’s interests must be within the zone of interests intended to be protected or regulated under the relevant statute. The court held that the plaintiffs’ environmental interests were not within the zone of interests that Congress intended to be protected by the law authorizing the New Starts grant program. That law regulates public transit funding and enumerates eight purposes, none of which mentions the environment. A provision does require FTA to comply with NEPA and to find that a project is justified based, in part, on its environmental benefits. The court concluded, however, that Congress did not intend to allow plaintiffs with environmental interests to bring an additional lawsuit to protect those interests separate from one brought under NEPA, because it would “give plaintiffs two chances to litigate objections that are based on the sort of environmental interests Congress conspicuously omitted from the Section’s enumerated purposes.”
Ability to Challenge Compliance with Mitigation Commitments. The court ruled that the plaintiffs could not challenge MTA’s alleged failure to comply with mitigation commitments in the ROD. The court explained that the Administrative Procedure Act only allows challenges to final agency actions; an agency's failure to take actions during project implementation was not a final agency action. “While the ROD is a final agency action subject to judicial review, implementing or carrying out—or, as plaintiffs put it, ‘following through on’—commitments contained in the ROD during ongoing construction is not.”
NHPA and Section 4(f)
Statute of Limitations. The court ruled that the plaintiffs’ NHPA and Section 4(f) claims were untimely because they were filed after the 150-day statute of limitations. Under 23 U.S.C. § 139, the 150-day statute of limitations for challenging FTA’s Section 4(f) determination and Section 106 Programmatic Agreement began to run when FTA filed a notice of those actions in the Federal Register. The Federal Register notice was published in March 2014, so the statute of limitations expired in August 2014, three years before the plaintiffs filed this lawsuit.