Widening of U.S. 95 likely to be delayed - Sierra Club allowed to air appeal

By Jace Radke


Las Vegas, Nevada - A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order is expected to delay the completion of the U.S. 95 widening project, but it won't stop the construction under way on the $370 million expansion.

The order will allow the Sierra Club to have its appeal to shut down the project heard before any pavement is poured on U.S. 95. The project is intended to widen the freeway from six to 10 lanes.

Associated work on the new interchange at the Rainbow curve, the construction of sound walls and overpasses, and the leveling of land for the widening will all continue on schedule, said Scott Magruder, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation.

"There won't be any difference for the people driving into work," Magruder said. "We'll still be out there."

But, Magruder said, the order filed Tuesday could cause the actual widening of the 5-mile stretch of road between the Spaghetti Bowl and Rainbow Boulevard to be delayed by a couple of months depending on the date set for a hearing of the Sierra Club's appeal.

The process of actually widening the lanes from six to a total of 10 is scheduled to begin in September, but the appeal will not be heard until late October at the earliest. The project is scheduled to be completed by the winter of 2006, but if the stay order is upheld the completion date would be pushed into 2007.

Briefings in the case are due to the 9th Circuit by mid-October and a hearing date will be set after that, said Joanne Spalding, staff attorney for the Sierra Club.

Spalding estimated that a final decision on the case will likely not be handed down from the circuit until December, which would put the widening project at least three months behind schedule if the stay is not lifted.

"We're in the early stages and I think we can meet with NDOT (Nevada Department of Transportation) and come up with an agreement on the construction that needs to be halted," Spalding said. "We've made efforts to get this appeal heard as soon as possible."

"Because the demand for transportation solutions in Southern Nevada is increasing daily, any potential delay in any transportation project is undesirable. The US 95 project is an important element of a multi-modal solution the RTC envisions to improve mobility, reduce congestion and delays and minimize air quality impacts cause by vehicle emissions," Reisman said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rimantas Rukstele said that the government is considering filing a motion asking that the appeals court reconsider the order regarding the widening project.

At issue in the Sierra Club's suit, originally dismissed by U.S. District Judge Philip Pro in March, is the widening of the corridor between Martin Luther King and Rainbow boulevards.

The suit alleged that the government's environmental impact study for the project does not take into account health risks caused by certain pollutants, and that the Federal Highway Administration made arbitrary and capricious decisions in approving the project.

The environmental group wants the Federal Highway Administration to conduct a new supplemental environmental impact study taking into account studies that say that highway pollution increases the risk of cancer in nearby communities.

The Sierra Club has also asked that the government take a more thorough look at cleaner alternative means to transport Las Vegas' growing population, such as a light rail system that would run alongside the freeway.

During previous court hearings Rukstele said that alternatives were looked at, but none were able to counter the growing gridlock on the freeway as the population of the Las Vegas Valley climbs.

He called a fixed rail system the biggest white elephant in the valley, saying that there is no market for it and not enough people to use it, since many who commute to work using U.S. 95 do not work downtown.

In court documents the Sierra Club stated that Pro's denial of its claim that the federal government violated environmental regulations was "based on an incorrect view of the facts," and that the Federal Highway Administration disregarded the studies relating to dangerous pollution levels.

Earlier this month Pro also denied the Sierra Club's motion to stay the construction, ruling that the irreparable harm the group seeks to avoid from increased emissions on a larger freeway cannot occur until the construction project is completed and open for traffic.

The construction between Martin Luther King and Rainbow boulevards is a portion of a larger project with a total price tag of more than $870 million. The larger project includes new overpasses and storm drains and the widening of U.S. 95 between Rainbow and Ann Road.



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