Sierra Club Puts Brakes on Vegas Highway Project

Sat January 08, 2005 - West Edition
Ken Ritter - Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) Arturo Tapia is among the people the Sierra Club thinks could be sickened by increased pollution if a key Las Vegas freeway is widened from six to 10 lanes.

Tapia, 28, a painting contractor, said he and his mother and 12-year-old sister have grown accustomed to living next to one of Nevada’s busiest roads.

“Always noise,” he said of U.S. 95, where Tapia can see traffic whiz past a low block wall separating his back yard from the freeway. “But it’s something you have to live with.”

In what both sides call a test case with broad national implications, the Sierra Club wants to stop the federal government from widening the freeway in fast-growing Las Vegas until it proves the health of people living nearby won’t be harmed.

“We think the science is clear,” said Jane Feldman of the Las Vegas chapter of the Sierra Club. “There is a risk of cancer, heart disease and lung disease.”

The group wants the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to order the Federal Highway Administration to rethink the Las Vegas project. And it has its sights set down the road.

“This would be a viable legal claim in a number of other cases around the country,” said Joanne Spalding, a Sierra Club lawyer in San Francisco.

She pointed to a study by her organization titled “Highway Health Hazards.” It includes the Nevada road project with others in California, Illinois, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, the Cincinnati and Columbus areas in Ohio and the Interstate 93 corridor linking Boston and New Hampshire.

“This is the first case, I think, that raises the highway health hazards issue in litigation,” said Spalding, who will argue the case Jan. 10 in San Francisco.

“If the court agrees with the Sierra Club position, communities will raise this issue in any community with a heavily traveled highway,” she said.

A federal judge in Las Vegas granted the Sierra Club a temporary injunction last summer, preventing contractors from paving new lanes on the five-mile stretch of freeway northwest of the Las Vegas Strip. The judge let drainage and sound wall work continue, pending the appeal.

Local, state and federal officials have criticized the Sierra Club for blocking what many call a crucial project to relieve daily gridlock.

Mary Peters, chief of the Federal Highway Administration, emerged from an October meeting with Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn to say the Bush administration backed the project.

“The 95 corridor is the most congested highway corridor in the state,” Guinn spokesman Greg Bortolin. “It’s the No. 1 transportation priority in the state. Our state, our congressional delegation and the governor are all in agreement on this.”

The widening is a $160 million piece of a $450 million freeway upgrade that Federal Highway Administration project engineer Greg Novak said aims to provide mobility and safety for 200,000 vehicles a day between the affluent Summerlin and Centennial Hills areas and the Las Vegas Strip.

“They don’t agree with the way we did it,” Novak, in Carson City, said of Sierra Club criticism that environmental studies were inadequate and health threats from pollution were overlooked. “We think we did it adequately. We apply the same rules in every state or city.”

The lawsuit counts 380 single-family homes, 27 apartment buildings, three schools, two community centers and a daycare facility along the stretch of freeway built in 1979 to handle up to 6,000 vehicles per hour.

At the time, Clark County and Las Vegas had about 440,000 residents and the road ran to wide open desert. Today, southern Nevada has more than 1.6 million residents, and state transportation officials count 9,000 vehicles per hour choking the freeway during morning and afternoon rushes.

The project calls for adding two lanes in each direction, including the first dedicated high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the state, to make room for 12,000 vehicles an hour by the end of 2006.

Spalding said she’ll ask the court to consider recent studies pointing to cancer risks for residents living near busy roads handling vehicles emitting diesel exhaust and carcinogens.

The appeal also challenges the adequacy of environmental studies and it claims highway planners didn’t sufficiently consider alternatives, such as a monorail or bus system.

Novak said planners considered light rail and rapid transit buses.

“They are being considered in other corridors in Las Vegas, which is where they should go,” he said. “But they just didn’t meet the need in that corridor. A highway works better.”

The Sierra Club lawyer said the government could provide better mass transit or agree to monitor air quality and pay for air filters at the schools.

“We believe that widening the freeway for the convenience of commuters at the expense of the health of people who attend school and live immediately adjacent is unfair,” Spalding said.

Dewayne Herrmann, a homeowner down the street from the Tapias, said he’ll be glad when the congested freeway is finally widened.

“If you don’t have a wider freeway, you’re still going to have the traffic, and it’ll be more congested with more accidents because it’s overloaded,” said Herrmann, 53, a welder. “Cars standing still put out more pollution than if they’re moving.”