Weaponization of EIS: the Purple Line
A few years ago I was at a conference on infrastructure, and I was talking to a journalist who reports on infrastructure financing for an institutional investing publication, and he referred to what he called "the weaponization of environmental review processes," in terms of how they (1) extend the development process to unbelievably long time frames and (2) provide multiple opportunities for people to file lawsuits against the project.
That's what's happened with the Purple Line light rail project in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties Maryland, where a lawsuit challenged the project's EIS--environmental impact statement--arguing that decline in Metrorail and Metrobus ridership because of the decline in the operating reliability of that system could have marked impacts on Purple Line ridership.
While the Maryland Transit Administration and the US DOT argued that WMATA ridership drops are not necessarily permanent and that the impacts are likely within normal ranges already considered, yesterday it was reported that federal Judge Richard Leon did not agree, calling for a revised EIS.
-- "Purple Line suffers major setback in Court," Washington Business Journal
Because of changes in federal priorities under the Trump Administration that disfavor transit, despite claims by Donald Trump as candidate and as President that he is committed to funding and implementing a wide-ranging infrastructure, delays increase the likelihood that federal funding will not happen, and the State of Maryland will stop funding the development phase of the project too.
Ironically, on Saturday, the Wall Street Journal had an article ("One Rail-Station Design May Be Just the Ticket to Ease Congestion") on a proposal by Rethink Studio in NYC to improve rail system reliability in Greater New York by better integrating and enhancing existing stations in the "station network" by improving and expanding connections between Penn Station in ways that make the lines "through lines" rather than Penn Station being a terminal station (comparable to how I have suggested that the MARC Penn Line and the VRE Fredericksburg Line be merged, to increase throughput, service, and decrease the demand for train storage in the Ivy City yard, see "A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines).
-- Volume One, Regional Unified Network, Rethink Studio, NYC
That article uses Crossrail in London and the Regional Rail (RER) program in Paris, and the Center City Connection program in Philadelphia which connected separate Pennsylvania Railroad stations--Suburban Station and 30th Street Station--with the old Reading Railroad lines and Reading Terminal, as examples of how to increase railroad passenger train capacity by creating through lines through "elimination" of terminal end point stations. From the article:
Terminal stations, where trains must reverse course to continue service, slow down travel. Through-running stations, where trains keep going without changing direction, speed it up.I argued from a slightly different perspective that the Purple Line, by providing a critical east-west medium capacity, high frequency rail line that connects the East and West legs of the Red Line, the north leg of the Green Line, and the east leg of the Orange Line, can have a similarly positive impact on Metrorail, by reducing the need for people to travel to and from Downtown DC in order to transfer between lines for trips that originate or end in Suburban Maryland.
The difference affects how many people can funnel into a busy urban core during peak hours or pass through the city to reach other destinations. For that reason, many metropolises opt for through-running stations.
Plus, the Purple Line will connect to all three lines of the MARC passenger rail system, the Brunswick Line in Silver Spring, the Camden Line in College Park, and the Penn Line in New Carrollton, further increasing the utility and benefit of the rail system as a more integrated network.
(In "Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 2 | proposed parallel improvements across the transit network" I proposed a parallel and complementary set of improvements across the transit network in concert with the development of the Purple Line, to further increase the value of the transit network.)
Not to mention that because of congestion and rail-induced development ("transit oriented development") a larger proportion of dense development in the metropolitan area is constructed in transit station catchment areas.
Plus, it is likely that despite competing objectives and goals amongst the jurisdictions, WMATA will be "fixed" and ridership will recover a significant proportion of the current decline -- which has also been abetted by lower gasoline costs and continued subsidy of driving in various ways.
We must remember that the NYC Subway system suffered grievous declines in the 1970s and 1980s but recovered. In fact, the system's current problems are a result of an explosion of ridership and the need to invest in physical improvements including technology advances and storm-related resiliency measures ("MTA Announces 6-Point Plan to Restructure Management and Improve System Reliability," MTA).
I am not a lawyer, and I didn't read the arguments and submissions on the court case -- from the WBJ article:
In the 12-page memorandum, Judge Richard Leon wrote that Maryland and federal officials must produce a supplemental environmental impact statement "as expeditiously as possible." The ruling is an extension of what Leon told the parties in November, when he declined to reinstate the Purple Line Record of Decision, a federal environmental document that would allow construction on the $5.6 billion project to proceed.but I believe that Judge Leon erred in his holding--although I can understand his reasoning--and it is unfortunate that this holding significantly increases the likelihood that the Purple Line will not move forward, and for all the expressed concern about "the environment," "sustainability," "climate change and global warming," and "greenhouse gas emissions," the reality is that the automobility and oil-dependent mobility paradigm continues to reign supreme.
This all comes in a response to a complaint from a Chevy Chase citizens group, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, that has been in the courts since 2014.
"In effect, FTA boldly concluded that there is no need for an SEIS, and the Purple Line will meet its established purposes, no matter what happens to WMATA Metrorail," Leon wrote. "To say the least, this is a curious conclusion when one considers that one of the three explicit purposes identified for the Purple Line was to 'provide better connections to Metrorail services.'"
Weaponization of EIS indeed. Note that I do agree with critics that the EIS process can be unduly time consuming, at significant cost to doing important projects. In large part this is because it provides many opportunities for opponents to sue or otherwise influence stakeholders to back down.
It certainly discourages "the private sector" from bidding on and investing in such projects if there is always a high degree of uncertainty due to the possibility of lawsuits and unfavorable decisions.