WASHINGTON -- An attorney for Lake Roland-area residents who oppose the Baltimore light-rail line has renewed his charge that Maryland officials are evading federal environmental laws to build the project.
Joseph J. McGovern of Philadelphia told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday that the state intentionally separated the state-funded 22.4-mile line from two smaller extensions that may eventually receive federal aid.
That action meant no federal environment impact study had to be conducted on the main portion of the line -- a study that might have found environmental damage enough to block the project, he said. The rail line that would link Timonium in Baltimore County to Dorsey Road in northern Anne Arundel County would run through Robert E. Lee Park, a 450-acre area encompassing Lake Roland, off Falls Road just north of Baltimore's northern limits.
McGovern asked Judges Patricia M. Wald, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to overturn a U.S. District Court decision holding that the state had acted properly in starting to build what could be considered a "stand-alone" project that was not federal in nature. Major federal projects are subject to environmental studies designed to assess whether potential ecological damage outweighs the merits of construction.
McGovern said the light-rail line has to be looked at as "a federal undertaking" because the state already has obtained approval of more than $2 million in federal study and preliminary engineering analysis funds for the two extensions of the main line. One extension would stretch the line from Timonium north to Hunt Valley; the other would connect a southernmost stop at Dorsey Road with Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
McGovern argued that the 22.4-mile state line made no sense without federally aided extensions. He said the state has had to get permits from the Army Corps of Engineers in areas where waterways are affected by the project.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark E. Nagle, who represented the interests of the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Administration, which could supply federal aid for the extensions, admitted there could be some point at which the number and scope of such permits could require a federal environmental study in an otherwise local project.
To do that, however, Nagle said, project foes should be in court challenging all federal agencies that approve such permits. The Corps of Engineers is not even a party to the suit, he said.
Carmen Shepard, Maryland assistant attorney general, told the panel, "The state is building the 22.5-mile line now and it will serve an important function if nothing else is ever built."
Federally financed extensions "are only a possibility," she said. The Baltimore project is not federal now because the state would have to decide first if it's needed, the federal government would have to provide funds it cannot now promise and environmental laws would have to be satisfied for the extensions.
The three-judge panel gave little indication of which way it would rule. The judges pressed both sides in the case to justify their positions.
Ginsburg asked Shepard about McGovern's contention that "only after the state was counseled what the consequences would be" did it embrace a 22.5-mile instead of a 27-mile project.
Ginsburg also challenged McGovern to prove the federal $2.5 million for planning of the two extensions, none of which has been spent, commits the government to funding construction.
McGovern attempted to show that the rail line had to be seen as "a federal undertaking."
McGovern asked to introduce into the record color photographs of ongoing construction consisting of dredging, excavating, bulldozing and other activity now taking place along parts of the 22.4-mile line on existing, abandoned railroad rights of way. His request was put on hold, pending a possible objection from the state. Appeals court judges are usually limited to considering only evidence presented in the original trial court.
The litigation was initiated by the Robert E. Lee Park Defense Fund, a non-profit group organized by Robert A. Macht, who lives near the city-owned park. The plaintiffs filed the suit in Washington because two of the major parties, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, are federal agencies.