Purple Line advocates question Town of Chevy Chase hiring congressman’s brother

One of the lawyers hired by the Town of Chevy Chase to evaluate potential legal challenges to the Purple Line light-rail project is the brother of a key congressional committee chairman, leading some transit advocates to question whether the town is trying to buy political influence.

Robert L. Shuster, an attorney with the firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, is the brother of Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The town hired the law firm in December on a monthly basis, so far paying a total of $40,000 for two months. The town council is scheduled to vote next month on whether to award an 18-month legal contract for $360,000.

The firm’s Web site lists Robert Shuster first as one of four lawyers on the project. The Shusters’ father, former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chaired the transportation committee from 1995 to 2001 and was known for steering highway funds to his central Pennsylvania district.

Ben Ross, a longtime Purple Line advocate and former president of Action Committee For Transit, said “The whole thing stinks.” Ross said he discovered the Shuster connection after he Googled the law firm following the town council’s vote Jan. 8 to hire the firm for a second month.

Tracey Johnston, another Purple Line advocate, said of the Shuster name, “If nothing else, someone answers your phone call. In Washington, that’s your first goal.”

Map of the proposed Purple Line

Robert Shuster said he was unavailable for an interview but wrote in an e-mail: “I have been lobbying for 20 years. Many of my clients have asked me to develop strategies for transportation projects across the country. As I told [the Town of Chevy Chase] council and tell my clients prior to being retained, I do not and will not lobby my brother.”

The Maryland Transit Administration’s plans to build a 16-mile Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is at a critical point as the state tries to find a way to cover the $2.2-billion construction costs. The state is pursuing bids from private companies to design, build, operate and maintain the line, in addition to helping finance it through a contribution of $500 million to $900 million.

The state also is seeking a low-interest federal loan for whichever private partner it chooses. Even more important is the state’s bid for $900 million in highly competitive federal construction grants, which state officials have said are necessary to cover about half the costs. Maryland transit planners have said they expect to hear in February whether the Federal Transit Administration will recommend the Purple Line for that money.

The state also is awaiting federal approval of the project’s final environmental impact study. A Purple Line, which would have two-car trains running mostly on local streets, would connect Maryland’s branches of the Metrorail system with MARC commuter rail stations and an Amtrak station.

Town of Chevy Chase leaders have objected to the transit proposal for years. Part of the route between Bethesda and New Carrollton would run along the town’s border, just beyond back fences. Trains also would run along the Georgetown Branch extension of the wooded Capital Crescent Trail used by town residents and other joggers and cyclists. Town officials have said a rail line would destroy the wooded, parklike trail and greatly affect local residents’ through noise, vibrations and safety issues.

Mayor Pat Burda said she didn’t know about the Shuster connection when she first spoke with the law firm. She said town leaders want to make sure the Federal Transit Administration knows about their concerns.

Burda said Shuster told her in their first meeting “that he cannot and will not lobby his brother, period.”

Moreover, she said, it would be “unrealistic” for the town to lobby Congress because it is the FTA that will recommend transit projects for federal construction money. She also noted that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a Purple Line supporter, is “influential” as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“If the project moves forward, there will be major impacts to the town,” Burda said. “We want to make sure all issues are addressed. . . . Sadly, we feel the state hasn’t been listening so we want to make sure the Feds are.”

Burda added, “We’re not lobbying Congress.”

It’s not the first time Maryland transit planners have wrangled with lawyers over the Purple Line. Last year, the Columbia Country Club, also in Chevy Chase, negotiated a 25-page legal agreement with the state that shifted the rail alignment through the club’s golf course to preserve clubhouse views and spare four holes. In exchange, the country club agreed not to file any lawsuits against the project.

Henry Kay, head of new project planning for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the state has “engaged in a very extensive and lengthy dialogue” with the Town of Chevy Chase.

“They’ve had a significant amount of input into the project throughout the process,” Kay said. “Apparently the town still has some concerns, which they can pursue in their own way.”

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Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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