Appeals court halts Las Vegas highway expansion project

A $515 million expansion of highway U.S. 95 in Las Vegas has been halted due to a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Federal Highway Administration. According to highway officials, the costly delay could put future projects such as adding carpool lanes in jeopardy.

The Sierra Club filed the lawsuit in 2002, stating FHA did not thoroughly research the possible health effects of the expansion project. In March 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ruled in favor of the administration. The Sierra Club then appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has halted substantial parts of the widening project while it reviews the organization’s claims.

On Oct. 14, the Regional Transportation Commission told the appeals court the delay in widening U.S. 95 could cause more pollution and harm than adding the lanes would because of heavy traffic congestion. The commission filed a brief with the court, backing the plan to widen the road. The brief criticizes the Sierra Club for imposing “inappropriate burdens” on the highway administration, saying the level of pollution risk analysis the club demands is “not yet possible in a scientifically credible way.” The commission also criticizes the club for filing the original lawsuit two years after officials approved the project’s plans.

“Major portions of the project are completed, and the sections under construction pose risks to the community,” the commission’s brief stated. “Citizens are suffering prolonged traffic congestion, unsafe road conditions and loss of taxpayer money.”

The Sierra Club’s lawsuit names the U.S. government as the defendant, and does not name the Transportation Commission.

The American Road and Transportation Builder’s Association filed a similar amicus brief Oct. 20, stating the widening of U.S. 95 from six to 10 lanes could include several positive environmental, public health and safety effects. In its “friend-of-the-court” brief, ARTBA said the project could lead to lower motor fuel consumption due to less traffic congestion, and more rapid response times for fire fighters, ambulances and other safety officers.

The appeals court is expected to complete its review in December. Until that time, construction is on hold.