Ritter, USA TODAY March 7, 2003
— Tens of thousands of workers commute from suburbs to resort and casino
jobs on the glimmering Strip, the economic soul of this booming entertainment
mecca. Many of them creep tediously along U.S. 95, the most congested
road in the nation's fastest growing urban area.
six-lane freeway morphing twice daily into a rush-hour parking lot,
policymakers from the governor on down ardently support a plan to widen
95 to 10 lanes.
the popular project are environmentalists and health experts worried
about pollution from the more than 300,000 vehicles a day that already
troll up and down 95. They cite studies linking higher levels of foul
air along busy urban highways to heightened cancer risks among people
who live and work nearby.
"hot spots" such as 95 are battlegrounds in many cities, but here the
issue has come to a head. The Sierra Club sued in January to stop the
project. It says the federal government failed to consider health consequences
and alternatives to highway construction as required by law.
projects have been challenged before on environmental and health grounds,
but this is the first such lawsuit based on scientific research into
is a test case with broad implications for urban highway expansion and
population growth in metro areas across the USA. The outcome not only
could send Nevada transportation officials back to the drawing board
but also could delay relief measures for other snarled roads. It could
force planners to give greater weight to solving congestion with mass
transit and even alter the patterns of where people choose to live.
spending the most money on the most polluting source, highways, and
we're saying we need to balance that out," says Brett Hulsey, national
coordinator of the Sierra Club's anti-sprawl campaign.
95, environmentalists want the Federal Highway Administration to study
the health risks of widening Interstate 75 from Dayton, Ohio, to Cincinnati;
building a beltway segment around Denver called the Northwest Parkway;
widening I-94 in downtown Detroit; widening I-94 and U.S. 45 around
Milwaukee; expanding I-10 and U.S. 290 out of Houston; and widening
Virginia's portion of the Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C.
can't keep up
health issues, the Las Vegas case spotlights a problem facing many thriving
cities, particularly in the West. Las Vegas has grown so fast that its
highway system hasn't kept up. Congestion worsens monthly. Yet in the
last decade, population spilled over such a wide area that developing
mass transit will be costly.
6,000 people a month moving here, bringing 4,000 automobiles with them,"
says Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission
of Southern Nevada. "The worst thing we could do from an air quality
standpoint is stop building roadways."
federal Judge Philip Pro denied the highway administration's motion
to dismiss the Las Vegas case.
say the widening will funnel even more traffic onto U.S. 95. "I'll leave
if this project goes in," says Barbara Roth, 70, who moved near what
was then a two-lane street 38 years ago. "The pollution is going to
be terrific because the traffic will back up immediately, just like
it is now. Crazy is the word."
could stop work on the project and order the highway agency to reassess
health risks. He could order it to consider alternatives to widening,
such as mass transit, as required under the National Environmental Policy
administration officials won't comment on the case. But in a sign that
the highway pollution issue is gaining traction, a Transportation Department
research panel held a forum in January called "Air Toxics: The Next
Poison Pill for Transportation?"
or killing the 95 expansion would anger many who believe growth will
choke southern Nevada unless its road system expands rapidly. The 6
miles to be widened have more aggressive drivers than any other road
in the region, a study in January found. An irate Gov. Kenny Guinn threatened
to erect billboards on 95 that say, "Traffic congestion brought to you
by the Sierra Club."
lawsuit's core is whether high concentrations of auto emissions such
as benzene and 1,3 butadiene, which are known carcinogens, raise health
risks. Opponents of the expansion say they do:
- A Denver
study in 2000 found that children living within 250 yards of highways
used daily by more than 20,000 vehicles were eight times more likely
to get leukemia.
- A study
the same year of Interstates 405 and 710 in Los Angeles showed that
vehicles accounted for 90% of the cancer risk from air pollution,
and that the highest risk was in congested, heavily populated urban
- A study
in suburban Buffalo last year found that children living in neighborhoods
close to heavy truck traffic had increased asthma risks.
- A Sierra
Club-financed study of three pollutants concluded that widening 95
would cause up to 1,400 more cancers per 1 million people over 70
years, more than 10 times greater than what the Environmental Protection
Agency considers a serious risk.
there's some correlations," says Ronald Rosen, a pediatric oncologist
in Las Vegas. He says he has no evidence of more cancers along 95. The
study only predicted higher rates. "But to dismiss an environmental
group that wants to look at this critically is really a big mistake."
want more buses, trains and light rail, but relying on mass transit
as much as denser Eastern cities do is unrealistic in the greater Las
Vegas sprawl, experts say. Even in the most optimistic scenario, transit
could handle no more than 15% of trips, says Shashi Nambisan, director
of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Nevada-Las
are choosing to live farther and farther out. Commute times and distances
are going up," Nambisan says. Low gasoline prices, the comfort and convenience
of personal vehicles, and abundant, cheap parking also work against
mass transit in Las Vegas.
are underway. Nevada voters in November endorsed a $2.7 billion transportation
initiative that includes $1 billion for transit. The first leg of a
3.6-mile monorail serving the Strip will open next year. A rapid transit
bus line will begin serving northern suburbs next winter.
complain that bus service was the budget ax's first victim in the recession.
Transit officials say they had no choice because fewer riders meant
declines in operating revenue. Transit's supporters point to Salt Lake
City's two light-rail lines as proof Las Vegas could do more. Ridership
on both lines is nearly double initial estimates. Still, that system
carries only about 1% of peak-hour trips.
progressing despite the lawsuit. Bulldozers are moving earth, overpasses
are being built and new sound walls are going up. More than 200 homeowners
were forced to sell and leave.
two community centers, a day care facility, 27 apartment buildings and
nearly 400 houses abut this stretch. But many residents are unaware
of health concerns. Rick Winget, principal of Ruth Fyfe Elementary School,
says he's eager to use more of his playground once a wall replaces a
chain-link fence between the school and the highway. He says no parents
have complained about pollution.
are really insensitive to the health risks," says Jane Feldman of the
Sierra Club's Las Vegas chapter. "They think cancer won't happen to
them, that it happens long-term. But this is hard scientific data and