Officials Settle Las Vegas Freeway Widening Suit

Tue July 12, 2005 - West Edition
Ken Ritter - Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) Widening could resume this fall on a key stretch of southern Nevada freeway after Sierra Club and state and federal highway officials announced they have settled a lawsuit that stalled the project.

The government agreed to install air filtration systems at schools along U.S 95 between downtown Las Vegas and the city’s northwest, and pay for relocating portable classrooms and a playground at one of the campuses.

The Federal Highway Administration also agreed to study air quality at up to five sites near highways around the nation.

In return, the Sierra Club will drop a lawsuit that was heard in January by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling was pending.

The club had argued that project planners failed to account for people living near the widened freeway who might be sickened by exhaust from increased automobile traffic. It pointed to studies that it said linked airborne vehicle pollution with cancer, asthma and premature death.

“The agreement allows us to move school kids out of the danger zone and monitor pollution to stay ahead of any future highway health hazards in the neighborhood,” Sierra Club official Jane Feldman said in a statement.

Gov. Kenny Guinn called the freeway widening one of the most important highway projects for southern Nevada and one of his highest priorities. He said the hold on laying pavement was costing the state up to $2 million a month in construction costs.

The state expects to spend about $3.3 million meeting requirements of the settlement, including about $1 million to retrofit Clark County School District buses with devices to reduce diesel emissions.

“We can move forward now on a project that certainly will keep the families, commuters and truckers traveling on U.S. 95 much safer,” Guinn said in announcing the settlement at news conference attended by Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters.

Peters said the settlement did not concede the validity of the Sierra Club challenge and should not set a precedent. She said the study of sites yet to be selected was not an acknowledgment that pollution from highways is dangerous.

“We don’t have a lot of information on these specific issues today,” Peters said.

She called the pact “crucial to the Las Vegas economy and the quality of life for people in this area.”

The agreement must be approved by the appellate court in San Francisco and U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Las Vegas. He granted a temporary injunction last year, putting the brakes on widening work on the five-mile stretch of one of the busiest freeways in the state.

Sen. John Ensign, R-NV, nudged the two sides toward agreement last month when he amended a congressional highway spending bill to essentially make the lawsuit moot by declaring the widening project met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The people of this community have made it clear that they want the work to continue,” Ensign said in a statement, “and so it will.”

Feldman said Las Vegas residents should not have to choose between reducing traffic and protecting children.

“There’s no question that the U.S. 95 expansion is a better project now that the schools will get some relief from pollution,” she said.

The stretch of highway was built in 1979 to handle up to 6,000 vehicles per hour. Authorities say nearly 12,000 vehicles now use it during morning and afternoon commutes, and numbers are increasing while travel speeds are slowing.

The widening from six to 10 lanes is a part of a $450 million freeway upgrade that the Federal Highway Administration said will ease congestion and improve safety for 200,000 vehicles a day.

Officials said the lawsuit pushed back the completion date for the project from December 2006 to August 2007.