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story.lead_photo.caption This June 2016 file photo shows an aerial view of the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

LITTLE ROCK -- U.S. District Judge James Moody on Thursday denied a request from downtown Little Rock neighborhood groups and residents for an immediate halt to the construction of the nearly $1 billion 30 Crossing project.

He found the the plaintiffs' objections didn't rise to the level of requiring a preliminary injunction. Those factors -- which include likelihood of success, denial of the plaintiffs' procedural rights, the failure of the defendants to follow federal environmental regulations, irreparable harm and the public interest -- favored the defendants, the Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, Moody said in a 19-page order.

"After considering all of the evidence and arguments presented by the parties, the court finds that all of the factors weigh in favor of the defendants and against the issuance of an injunction," the judge wrote. "Therefore, the request for injunctive relief is denied."

The order was connected to a lawsuit the neighborhood groups and residents filed on May 5, 2019, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the state and federal agencies overseeing the project to redesign, reconstruct and widen a 6.7-mile section of Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

The project, the planning of which began six years ago, is the most expensive that the state Transportation Department has undertaken and, given the convergence of six major roadways in the corridor, among the most complex.

The project includes the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River, which opened to traffic in 1961 at a cost of $7.3 million, according to the August 1961 volume of Arkansas Highways magazine. About 124,000 vehicles a day use the six-lane bridge.

The neighborhood groups and residents, led by the Little Rock Downtown Neighborhood Association, say the environmental review conducted and overseen by the Transportation Department and approved by the Federal Highway Administration fell short of the more in-depth review necessary for an undertaking of this size and scope, and that work shouldn't proceed unless that review, called an environmental impact statement, is performed first.

The defendants maintained that they followed the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal regulations and laws in the development of the project that began in 2014 and pointed out the plaintiffs were unable to show that they would suffer "irreparable harm" if the project is built.

Moody, by and large, agreed, noting the U.S. Supreme Court has "cautioned that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, one that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing, carries the burden of persuasion."

The administrative record shows the defendants' "efforts to involve the public in this process were diligent," the judge said, citing four public meetings held in 2014 and 2015, two more after the issuance of a draft environmental assessment in 2015. Almost 800 people attended the latter two meetings, he said.

He also cited additional opportunities for the public to comment, including a 45-day comment period after the release of the draft environmental assessment and more than a dozen "pop-up" meetings.

In spite of those efforts, Moody said the plaintiffs claim they were denied their procedural rights to be involved in the process.

For example, the plaintiffs said they were denied the right to comment on the project being completed in phases rather than in its entirety. That decision came when the joint venture retained to complete the design and construction said it would cost nearly $1 billion to build.

Early planning estimates the department developed established a budget of $631.7 million. An additional $350 million to complete the work would be available if voters approve Issue 1 in November. Issue 1 would make permanent a statewide half-percent sales tax dedicated to road and bridge construction. Voters approved the tax for 10 years in 2012. It is to expire in 2023.

Moody said the draft environmental assessment contemplated not enough money being available.

"In the event that none of the design-build firms are able to provide the full project scope, additional projects will be programmed and contracts will be let at a future date," the judge said, quoting from the document.

"The court finds that plaintiff has not shown a likelihood of success on any of these claims," Moody wrote.

He similarly found for the defendants in the plaintiffs' 76 pages of arguments detailing what they saw as the Federal Highway Administration's failure to comply with the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act.

They included challenging the "purpose and need" of the project, the lengthy and "perceived incomprehensibility" of the environmental assessment, the lack of an environmental impact statement, the analysis of the project's direct and indirect impacts, the "perceived failure" to address the impact on minority and low-income residential areas, insufficient identification and analysis of the pollution, the impact on wetlands, water quality and flood, and the impacts on the River Market, Clinton Presidential Park and other downtown areas.

"The court has carefully considered these arguments and defendants' responses and finds that while plaintiffs have thoroughly catalogued their disagreements with the [environmental assessment] and given the comprehensive basis for those disagreements, they have not shown a likelihood that they would prevail on the merits on any of their challenges," Moody said.

He also said the environmental assessment "is clearly understood, thorough and adequately [addresses] the identification and analysis of the environmental and social impacts raised by plaintiffs."

Moody recounted the testimony of three plaintiff witnesses -- Joshua Silverstein, Frederick Gentry and Barbara Barrows -- who said they would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction wasn't granted. All live in downtown Little Rock and expressed concern about how the increased pollution and traffic that results from the project will affect their health, property values and quality of life.

The judge said the injunction would only halt work until the final hearing on Oct. 20, which is about the time state highway officials said construction would begin and concluded that the "plaintiffs have failed to establish that they will likely suffer irreparable harm if work on the project commences as planned."

And given that the department already has paid the contractors $60 million, including $25 million in mobilizing personnel and equipment and overhead costs of $32,000 for each day the project is delayed, the "balance of equities" favors the defendants.

Moody also said the public interest was on the side of the defendants.

"Defendants have demonstrated that the project will likely benefit the public by reducing congestion, enhancing safety, and improving the quality of life for thousands of people who will use the expanded roadway every day," he wrote.

Rita Looney, the state Transportation Department's chief counsel, welcomed the ruling.

"On the factors that relates to weighing whether a preliminary injunction is appropriate, he found for us on all of the factors so we are very pleased," she said.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Richard Mays of Little Rock, expressed disappointment in the ruling.

"With all due respect to the court, I don't agree with the decision, and I believe it may have some errors of omission that are important," he said Thursday evening.

But Mays said he wanted to review the order more thoroughly and discuss it with his clients on what will be his next step, which could include appealing the order to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis and seeking another injunction while an expedited appeal is pursued.

"That will be up to the clients," he said.

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