A unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit) threw the Washington, D.C. area’s beleaguered “Purple Line” light rail project a lifeline earlier this week when it overturned a district court ruling that would have required the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Purple Line project has been in the works for over two decades.

The ruling stands for the proposition that a court must give significant deference to federal agencies when they duly consider highly technical data in assessing environmental impacts under NEPA, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., a procedural statute requiring agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of a variety of alternatives.

In Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail v. FTA, 200 F. Supp. 3d 248 (D.D.C. Aug. 3, 2016), the district court had ordered the SEIS after plaintiffs complained that the cost-benefit analysis in FTA’s EIS had failed adequately to consider the impact of recent safety problems and ridership decline in the area’s major regional transit system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail system – to which the Purple Line will connect upon completion. Subsequently, upon a motion for reconsideration, the district court allowed FTA to submit an analysis of the safety and ridership concerns and to propose the appropriate level of environmental review.

FTA submitted its analysis to the district court in December 2016, considering multiple alternatives, including complete cessation of ridership on Metrorail. Even in that scenario, FTA found, the Purple Line would still meet the project’s objective of connecting communities in Maryland’s Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and cause no greater environmental impacts.

The district court disagreed, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail v. FTA, 253 F. Supp. 3d 296 (D.D.C. May 22, 2017), and FTA appealed.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit held that Metrorail’s safety and ridership problems did not present “a seriously different picture of the environmental landscape” requiring preparation of an SEIS. Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail v. FTA, No. 17-5132 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 19, 2017), slip op. at 14 (internal citations omitted). In such highly technical matters where an agency decides not to prepare an SEIS, courts are to apply a narrow, not a “searching and careful” review. Id. at 10.

Appellants have not yet announced whether they will seek Supreme Court review, but this decision will likely be viewed as favorable by the current administration, which has pledged to reduce federal “red tape,” including protracted NEPA reviews, for infrastructure projects.