Town of Chevy Chase won’t file Purple Line lawsuit, official says

Leaders for the Town of Chevy Chase have spent about $214,000 so far on legal fees as part of their long-held opposition to the planned Purple Line route, but the town has no plans to file a lawsuit against the light-rail project, as a trail advocacy group did Tuesday.

Pat Burda, the town’s vice-mayor, said Wednesday that Chevy Chase could file a brief at some point in support of the lawsuit that was filed by the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and two town residents. However, she said no decision has been made on such a brief. The deadline for filing lawsuits is Thursday.

The town contributed $4,000 to the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail in May for a fundraiser and $1,000 to update the group’s Web site, the town manager said. The council also approved up to $10,000 to help the advocacy group hire an American University professor to search Rock Creek Park in Montgomery County for two rare shrimp-like creatures. Burda said there’s been no decision on whether the town will help fund the trail group’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that four federal agencies violated federal environmental law and the Endangered Species Act by approving the Maryland Transit Administration’s Purple Line plans without ensuring that two rare crustaceans would be protected or avoided. The tiny Hay’s spring amphipod has been listed as a federally protected endangered species since 1982, and the Kenk’s amphipod is a candidate for federal listing.

The Chevy Chase council voted in February to spend $29,000 monthly, or up to $350,000 total, to hire a Washington law firm as part of its Purple Line opposition. Three miles of the proposed Purple Line route would run along the trail, which borders the town. The entire 16-mile route would run between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

The town’s hiring of the firm Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney had drawn criticism from some Purple Line advocates because one of its lawyers working for the town is Robert L. Shuster, the brother of U.S. Rep Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Critics accused the affluent town of trying to buy political influence. Town officials have said that Shuster will not lobby his brother.

Ajay Bhatt, the trail advocacy group’s president, said the lawsuit is being funded through donations.

Bhatt said the lawsuit’s goal is to require the Maryland Transit Administration to avoid the wooded jogging and cycling trail. State plans now call for trains to run alongside a rebuilt trail, but trail advocates say doing so would destroy what they consider to be a linear urban park.

Bhatt said the state could spare the trail and the amphipods’ habitat by running trains in a tunnel between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

“They don’t have to come through here and take down the forest,” Bhatt said Wednesday.

Montgomery County bought the trail land, an abandoned freight rail line, in 1988 to preserve for what was then planned to be a one-track trolley line. State transit officials have said that tunneling is prohibitively expensive. The project, now estimated to cost $2.37 billion to build, is seeking $900 million in highly competitive federal funds.

The Hay’s spring amphipod has been spotted in the District’s portion of Rock Creek Park, about 4.5 miles downstream from where Purple Line trains would cross the park on a new bridge east of Jones Mill Road. The Kenk’s amphipod has been found in a spring near Coquelin Run, about a quarter-mile from the alignment through Chevy Chase.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is named in the legal complaint, has said neither creatures would be affected by a Purple Line. The Hay’s spring amphipod is too far away to be affected by the line or its construction, the agency has said, and the habitat for the Kenk’s amphipod is fed from different groundwater sources than those near the alignment.

How much impact the lawsuit will have on the project is hard to tell. Environmentally based lawsuits are common in large transportation construction projects. However, the Purple Line would be the state’s first public-private partnership on a major transportation project, and it’s moving along on an unusually fast schedule.

The state put the project out to bid in July. State officials have said they plan to award a 35-year contract this spring for a private team to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance the project. If the state secures $900 million in federal funding, construction could begin in mid-2015, officials have said.

Henry Kay, the state’s head of new transit project development, said he’s not concerned about the lawsuit.

“Based on the fact that we don’t think it will be successful, we don’t think it will have any impact on the project’s timing,” Kay said.

Many such lawsuits proceed until a judge rules whether they should be dismissed, before any trial. If the case isn’t decided before bulldozers are set to begin clearing trees, the plaintiffs could seek an injunction to delay construction until the lawsuit is resolved.

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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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