Lawsuit pits risks and roads

By John Ritter, USA TODAY March 7, 2003

LAS VEGAS 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.

With the 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.

Bucking 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.

Urban highway "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.

Highway projects have been challenged before on environmental and health grounds, but this is the first such lawsuit based on scientific research into traffic-generated pollution.

U.S. 95 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.

"We're 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.

Besides 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.

Highways can't keep up

Beyond 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.

"We have 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."

Last month, federal Judge Philip Pro denied the highway administration's motion to dismiss the Las Vegas case.

Opponents 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."

The judge 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 Act.

Highway 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?"

Delaying 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."

At the 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 zones.
  • 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.

"It's obvious 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."

Transit's limited reach

Environmentalists 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 Vegas.

"People 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.

But efforts 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.

Environmentalists 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.

Work is 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.

Three schools, 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.

"People 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 it's scary."

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