Workers could begin slicing down trees along the route of the planned Purple Line as early as Monday, after a federal judge late Friday denied a request for a temporary restraining order from opponents of the light rail project.
The ruling is the latest disappointment for opponents of the light-rail line who have been waging legal battle since 2014 to block its construction.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled the trees can be cut even though the appeals stemming from a 2014 lawsuit have yet to be exhausted. Some of the trees have been standing for 80 years.
“Just because the plaintiffs see this challenge as a last-ditch means to ‘stop the Purple Line’... that does not mean their claims entitle them to the requested injunction,” the judge wrote in the five-page ruling.
Gregory Sanders, vice president of Purple Line Now, a coalition of project supporters including labor and business groups, said he was pleased by the ruling.
“I don’t think [the plaintiff’s case] had anything to do with the merits argued,” he said.
Opponents — including Chevy Chase residents and the advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail — argued that cutting down trees before the lawsuit is resolved would cause “irreparable environmental damage.”
John M. Fitzgerald, a Chevy Chase resident and environmental lawyer who is a plaintiff in the 2014 lawsuit, said Saturday that they are considering their options.
“In the meantime we would hope that the secretary of transportation of Maryland would agree not to cut down the remaining trees... for the near future until those issues are resolved,” he said.
The trees stand along the Georgetown Branch Trail, the wooded recreational trail between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring which is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.
The state closed the trail several weeks ago and has said it would remain off limits for four to five years while the 16-mile light-rail line’s western segment is built in the corridor. Workers have already begun cutting smaller trees — those less than nine inches in diameter, an attorney for the state said.
At a hearing earlier this month, Tyler Burgess, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, said the opponents’ legal arguments hadn’t cleared a “very high bar” for a temporary restraining order, which she deemed “very extraordinary relief.”
Albert Ferlo, a lawyer who represents the Maryland Department of Transportation, said at the time that every day of construction delays costs the state up to $433,000 in potential contract penalties and other costs.
So far, $900 million in federal grants have been committed to the project’s more than $2 billion construction costs.
“You could give everybody free Uber rides for their lifetimes for the amount of money they’re spending on this project,” Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said Saturday.
The state is appealing an unfavorable ruling in the 2014 lawsuit opposing the Purple Line, but an appellate court recently permitted construction to continue while a three-judge panel considers the case. A hearing is set in the case for Nov. 1.
The plaintiffs say the U.S. Transportation Department failed to require Maryland to show it can afford to maintain and operate the region’s existing transportation system, particularly Metro, before using federal aid to expand it.
The plaintiffs also argue that the Purple Line shouldn’t receive federal construction funding until it abides by Leon’s previous order to redo the project’s ridership forecasts to reflect Metro’s declining ridership and safety problems.
The state has yet to rework that environmental analysis — a process that could take months — and is appealing Leon’s order to a higher court.
The Purple Line will operate separately from Metro, but 27 percent of its riders are expected to be transferring to and from Metro.
Connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the line will employ light-rail trains that will be shorter and slower than Metro’s trains.