Springtime nests for owls and other birds probably will prevent construction from starting on a major segment of the Purple Line for an additional five months, potentially adding more delays to a project already seven months behind schedule.
Because of delays caused by a pending lawsuit, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is about to miss a March 31 deadline for clearing about 43 acres of trees, a critical first step in building the 16-mile light-rail line planned for the Washington suburbs.
Beginning April 1, a federal law that protects the nests of migratory birds will prohibit the MTA from cutting into “forested” areas until September — almost a year after the line’s construction was initially scheduled to begin. The seasonal restriction is designed to allow bird eggs to hatch and chicks to mature and fly off before the trees holding their nests are destroyed.
The tree-cutting restrictions will have the biggest impact in sparing, at least temporarily, most of the popular wooded Georgetown Branch jogging and cycling trail, where trains would run between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. The 3.2-mile trail has been the most controversial segment of the project, with opponents saying that clearing hundreds of towering trees will devastate a rare urban swath of parklike green space. The trail, which runs between homes, will be rebuilt with a landscaped buffer along the train tracks, but in some areas, almost every tree will be cut down.
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Tree-clearing was originally set to begin on the trail last fall and be completed by March 31, an MTA spokesman said. However, it and all other major construction activities were put on hold in August after a federal judge set aside the project’s federal environmental approval as part of the lawsuit. Although design and engineering work has continued, major construction can’t begin until that lawsuit is resolved.
On Wednesday, the MTA appeared to be unaware of the seasonal ban. MTA officials initially said, “There are no federal or state restrictions on tree-clearing for the Purple Line.”
When pressed repeatedly about a federal agreement on the project showing such a ban, MTA spokesman Ryan Nawrocki said the agency had only been referring to the fact that there are no tree restrictions in place.
Nawrocki said he couldn’t say how a five-month delay to clear trees would affect the project’s overall five-year construction schedule, mentioning only that the state still expects the rail line to open for service in spring 2022. State officials have previously said that every month of delay adds more than $13 million to the $2 billion construction costs.
“Once we have the decision from the judge,” Nawrocki said, “we will take a detailed look at the entire schedule to see what activities can be compressed and if the schedule needs to be adjusted.”
If the judge dismisses the lawsuit, he said, the MTA will ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to begin cutting at least some trees, such as individual ones that aren’t considered to be part of “forested” bird habitat. Construction also would begin in nonforested areas along the alignment.
A ruling from U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon is expected any day, but the decision is expected to be appealed either way. That makes it highly unlikely, if not impossible, for tree-cutting to be completed in the next three weeks.
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The Purple Line will run single-vehicle trains mostly aboveground between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. State officials say it will improve east-west transit in the Washington suburbs and spur investment around stations in older communities.
The MTA agreed to the seasonal tree-cutting ban in 2014 as part of the mitigation measures required to secure federal environmental approval and $900 million in federal construction grants. The bird protections, which were suggested by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, also cover a colony of great blue herons in the Coquelin Run stream valley, about a quarter-mile from the trail in Chevy Chase.
Purple Line opponents involved in the lawsuit have seized on the nesting restrictions as an example of the environmental damage they say the project will cause. The lawsuit also argues that construction will harm the Hay’s spring amphipod, a tiny shrimplike creature listed as a federally protected endangered species.
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Albert Manville, a former senior wildlife biologist for the federal Division of Migratory Bird Management and a consultant for the plaintiffs in the Purple Line lawsuit, said hundreds of species of migratory birds nest along the trail. Although the seasonal ban protects them during spring and summer, he said, the trail will lose critical bird and other wildlife habitat once the trees are gone. That leads to declines in species, such as owls that eat rats and birds that remove insects from plants.
“When we fragment habitat and fragment species, we weaken ecosystems,” Manville said. “Whether you like birds or not, they play an integral role in maintaining sound, healthy systems.”
John M. Fitzgerald, a plaintiff and lawyer on the lawsuit, said several Montgomery residents began hearing the hoots of the barred owl in February. The owl gained notoriety in 2015, when runners on the Capital Crescent Trail reported being attacked by a large bird divebombing their heads.
“We’re not just trying to stop the Purple Line,” said Fitzgerald, a Chevy Chase resident. “We’re trying to steward these natural resources and conserve the environment for people in the national capital area.”