An $87.3 million project to widen a section of Interstate 630 in Little Rock will continue until at least Monday.
A federal judge Thursday declined to halt the removal of the interstate's Hughes Street overpass, which is scheduled to begin this weekend. The bridge removal is part of the widening project.
A preliminary hearing on a lawsuit filed by five Little Rock residents to stop the project until its impact on the environment can be assessed was held by U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr.
Moody was assigned the case after U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker recused. She said the case should be reassigned because she "has personal relationships with those who may be called as witnesses in the case," according to an order filed Thursday morning.
A hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order, originally set by Baker, was replaced with a hearing that Moody called to help get acquainted with the case. The hearing on the motion was reset for 9 a.m. Monday.
The Hughes Street overpass will be closed to traffic for about three months while a new overpass is built.
Richard Mays of Little Rock, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that demolishing the overpass is the "critical issue between now and Monday."
"If that happens, I think it's going to have a substantial impact," he told Moody. "It will change irrevocably the situation at that point. The status quo will not be maintained to any significant degree."
Mays said if the defendants prevail in the case, they could tear down the overpass later. "We're talking about a delay of several days."
He dismissed claims by the chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, Rita Looney, who told Moody that the department already has spent $4 million to allow the contractor, Manhattan Road and Bridge Co. of Tulsa, to move in equipment for the project and do other preliminary work.
The department is a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
"It would be harm to the taxpayer, it would be harm to the department and it would be harm to the contractor," Looney said.
Looney also cited the road-user costs, which are those associated with increased congestion, delay, and wear and tear on the more than 100,000 vehicles that travel the section of I-630 between Baptist Health Medical Center and South University Avenue. She estimated those costs at $200,000 per day.
But Mays said court precedent maintains that the environment is paramount.
"When there's a conflict between the cost to the defendant and the protection of environmental quality, the courts have ruled that if you permit the project to proceed, there's no way to go back and redeem whatever environmental quality may be lost as a result of the project," he said.
Moody was unpersuaded, noting that Hughes Street carries only local traffic and isn't a factor in the environmental issues the lawsuit has raised.
The residents contend in the lawsuit that the widening project has potentially significant environmental impacts that require an environmental review. The project received a federal exemption from an environmental review, a decision that the lawsuit said was incorrect.
"I am confident that we can push these proceedings into Monday, where at least I can be more prepared, without any irreparable harm," Moody said. "In fact, they can build the Hughes Street bridge back and intend to do so, and I'm not even aware of any widening of the Hughes Street overpass that may happen in any significant way or that you anticipate the Hughes Street traffic will be increased after the rebuilding of that overpass.
"And so your arguments about environmental quality, increase in traffic and things of that nature, I don't think apply to this particular portion of the construction."
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 that provides access from the west to and from downtown Little Rock.
The interstate, which has six lanes, carries 119,000 vehicles daily. Traffic protections show that 141,000 vehicles daily will travel I-630 in 20 years.
The project will widen the 2.5-mile section to eight lanes and replace bridges on the interstate at South Rodney Parham Road and Rock Creek.
Looney said it was a mistaken assumption on Mays' part that the interstate bridges will be closed, the same way as the Hughes Street overpass, when they are replaced.
She said the interstate bridge replacements would require no detours, although the work might require some lane closings.
The department has performed noise studies that found that traffic noise would increase as a result of the project and identified places where noise barriers could be placed to reduce noise levels.
But Mays said he found no evidence that studies were done on the increased pollution levels that would be generated by the additional traffic, a point Looney didn't dispute Thursday.
What little assessment of the project's environmental impact that was performed didn't have any supporting documentation, he said.
"It's more than just a repair," Mays said. "They are enlarging a highway to a significant, a great degree."
Looney noted that the project required no additional right of way and that it was an extension of the improvements completed three years ago on the Interstate 630/Interstate 430 interchange immediately to the west of the project that is the subject of this lawsuit.
That interchange project cost $124 million. It received the same categorical exclusion from environmental reviews that the I-630 project received, she said.
Metro on 07/20/2018
Print Headline: Judge recusal alters hearing in I-630 case