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story.lead_photo.caption This photo from the Arkansas Department of Transportation shows work beginning on a project to widen I-630 through part of Little Rock.

Five Little Rock residents went to federal court Wednesday in a bid to stop work on an $87.3 million project to widen a section of Interstate 630 until the environmental impact of the project is assessed.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court said the 2.5-mile project between Baptist Health Medical Center and South University Avenue doesn't qualify under federal law to be excluded from the requirement that state highway officials prepare an environmental assessment or a more intensive environmental impact statement on the project.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation sought and received an exclusion from those requirements by the Federal Highway Administration, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. All three agencies are listed as defendants.

The contractor, Manhattan Road & Bridge Co. of Tulsa, has been staging equipment for several weeks and began actual work on the project Monday. The Hughes Street overpass is to be demolished beginning as soon as Friday.

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I-630 lawsuit

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[DOCUMENT: Read the full lawsuit]

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to halt any further work, a hearing on a motion for a preliminary and permanent injunction, and an order enjoining further work on the project until the defendants have assessed the environmental impact of the project.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker. She set a hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order for 2:30 p.m. today.

State highway officials had not been served with the lawsuit by midafternoon Wednesday and even if they had, because it involves litigation, they would have no comment on the lawsuit, said Danny Straessle, the department's spokesman.

The lawsuit was filed by Little Rock residents George Wise, Matthew Pekar, Uta Meyer, David Martindale and Robert Walker, all described as people who regularly use or live near I-630, a commuter corridor between downtown Little Rock and points west.

The interstate, which has six lanes, carries 119,000 vehicles daily. Traffic projections show that by 2030, it will carry 141,000 vehicles every day.

"The Interstate 630 corridor in Little Rock, Arkansas has currently exceeded its capacity, resulting in safety issues, congested driving conditions and failing levels-of-service," according to the categorical exclusion document, which also notes that the project will be built within existing department right of way.

The project will widen the section under construction to eight lanes and replace bridges on the interstate at South Rodney Parham Road and Rock Creek, as well as replace the Hughes Street overpass.

"The I-630 project that is the subject of this suit is part of what is nothing less than a major overhaul of the expressway," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit was filed by Richard Mays and Heather Zachary, members of the Little Rock law firm Williams and Anderson. Mays is an environmental lawyer whose experience includes work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

Mays already is representing several individuals and organizations opposed to a $630.7 million project to widen a section of Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, including replacing the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River.

The lawsuit seeking to stop work on I-630 said the project doesn't qualify for exclusion from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the potential impacts of federal action on the environment.

In granting what is called a categorical exclusion, "the defendants failed to adequately determine whether the I-630 project will likely involve significant air, noise, or water quality impacts, whether it will have significant impacts on travel patterns or will otherwise, either individually or cumulatively, have any significant environmental impacts."

The lawsuit repeatedly called that failure "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and otherwise not in accordance with law."

The people who filed the lawsuit will be "exceptionally and severely damaged, prejudiced and aggrieved" by the project, which the lawsuit claims will inflict "irreparable damage upon the project area's ecosystem; upon traffic usage and patterns; and adversely affect the ability of the [residents] to use I-630 in their daily commutes, and to enjoy their homes and neighborhoods."

Some of the residents are mindful of "considerable controversy and litigation," according to the lawsuit, that came with the initial construction of I-630 in the 1970s. The interstate often is cited as a racial and economic divide between people who lived south of the interstate and those who lived north of it.

Wise, the lead plaintiff, lives in east Little Rock and south of I-630 and uses the interstate to commute to his job in west Little Rock, according to the lawsuit.

Not only will the project dramatically alter his commute, the lawsuit said, Wise also is concerned about the "increases in noise and air pollution and their effects on the human environment, the proliferation of multi-lane highways through the center of cities, and the negative effect that widening of I-630 will have on the social and economic environment of Little Rock."

"Having been a long-time resident of the area south of I-630, he is acutely aware of the impact I-630 has had in dividing the city, and believes that more lanes will only add to the divisiveness."

Other plaintiffs who live in residential areas immediately north of the project expressed concern about the increased noise, as well as the air pollution, that could affect the health of people in the neighborhood.

Even if the project qualified for a categorical exclusion, the agreement under which the categorical exclusion was granted has expired, the suit said. The Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration signed the agreement in 2009, but under federal law, such agreements cannot have a term exceeding five years, the lawsuit said.

Further, the lawsuit said the state agency did anything but take a "'hard look' at the potential environmental consequences" of the project as federal law requires.

In the categorical exclusion document, the agency checked "boxes on a one-page form" as a means to "assess" the project's environmental impacts.

"Such assessment is inadequate," the lawsuit said.

But the form did indicate "significant" impacts from increased noise the project would generate in several areas, which by definition means the project didn't qualify for a categorical exclusion, according to the lawsuit.

Part of the project includes the installation of sound barriers protecting neighborhoods on the north side of the project, including the Briarwood residential area between Mississippi Street and South University Avenue. A neighborhood on the south side of I-630 that would be affected by noise voted against having the sound barriers installed.

Federal law governing categorical exclusion also requires that qualified projects not have significant impacts on travel patterns. The environmental assessment form that the department prepared for the categorical exclusion document contains no statement that the project won't have a significant impact on travel patterns, according to the lawsuit.

"To the contrary, the [department's] own statements and official documents compel the inescapable conclusion that there will be serious and ongoing disruptions and forced changes to traffic patterns," the lawsuit said.

It cited a July 13 news release from the department announcing that work would begin on the project this week. The release included closing two lanes in each direction within the work zone from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night, leaving one lane for traffic.

All six lanes will remain open during peak travel times during the day, but department officials said periodic lane closures and lane shifts are expected to take place during off-peak times.

The news release also said neighborhoods adjacent to the project would experience more noise at night and that the Hughes Street overpass would be closed for three months so it could be demolished and replaced.

The department release made no mention of the other two bridges on the interstate, which the lawsuit suggested indicates that major traffic disruptions are "clearly inevitable" if the spans are demolished and removed in the same manner as the Hughes Street overpass.

The South Rodney Parham and Rock Creek bridges will be replaced by building new construction to the outside with six lanes of traffic remaining in place at all times, Straessle said.

Also the department did not appear to have conducted any studies of the potential impacts the project would have on air quality, according to the lawsuit.

"It is scientifically well established that areas adjacent to expressways and other highly-traveled roads suffer impacts to air quality, and that vulnerable persons, such as children and the elderly, are especially impacted by pollutants from vehicles," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also states that federal law requires the project impacts to be considered in light of the "indirect and cumulative impacts of such action in connection with other past, current and future actions," particularly on people who use I-630 to commute to work.

The project would still be unfinished when other major corridors also scheduled for improvements would be under construction. The lawsuit, in particularly, highlighted the $630.7 million I-30 project, between Interstate 530 in Little Rock and Interstate 40 in North Little Rock. It connects to I-630.

"The 30 Corridor project has particular relevance because I-630 has its eastern terminus at I-30, and traffic issues on highway impacts traffic on the other," the lawsuit said.

A Section on 07/19/2018

Print Headline: 5 LR residents sue to halt work to widen I-630

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