As a construction zone is being set up to widen a 2.2-mile stretch of Interstate 630 in Little Rock, a federal lawsuit aims to bring the $87.4 million project to a halt. One lane is to be added in each direction between Baptist Health Medical Center and University Avenue.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas argues that a proper environmental assessment was not conducted. Attorney Richard Mays is asking for a temporary restraining order which would stop construction until the lawsuit can be heard in court.
"The suit is challenging the premise of the basis for the commencement of construction that was issued by the Department of Transportation and by the Federal Highway Administration called a categorical exclusion," Mays said in an interview with KUAR News. Categorical exclusions are typically used for small routine projects that don’t have any environmental impacts, he said.
"In this case, this is not a small project; this is not a routine project. It’s an almost $90 million project that’s going to increase the size of Interstate 630 by at least half of what it already is," Mays said. "It will also increase the amount of traffic that will be able to travel over it and increase the exhaust contamination, air particulates, fumes, gases, dust, noise, all of those things."
The U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Arkansas Department of Transportation are named as defendants.
The case was brought by Mays, an environmental lawyer, on behalf of five plaintiffs: George Wise, Matthew Pekar, Uta Meyer, David Martindale and Robert Walker.
"They’re people who reside in the area where this construction is going to be taking place, or is proposed to be taking place on I-630, and they will be directly and adversely impacted by the effects of the construction," Mays said.
As of Wednesday afternoon the Arkansas Department of Transportation had not been served with the lawsuit, according to spokesman Danny Straessle. He said the department would not comment on pending litigation.
The first of three overpasses that are to be torn down, then rebuilt to accommodate the larger width of the interstate is Hughes Street. Straessle said that overpass will likely be demolished on Friday or Saturday.
Mays is hoping for a quick court hearing before the end of the week to consider his request for a temporary restraining order to stop work from proceeding.
"Under the rules of the court there has to be a hearing within a short period of time. I know the court is going to be aware of the problem here, the time problem, and I expect that we will be able to get before a judge briefly and… hopefully get some kind of temporary stay on this until the hearing can be heard."
The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson.
Mays said procedures for starting a project of this magnitude should fall under the National Environmental Policies Act. That would involve having an environmental assessment completed to determine potential contamination from increased exhaust fumes from automobiles or noise.
On Monday a contractor began setting up the construction zone, with work being done at night and during off-peak hours. The speed limit has been reduced in the area to 50 miles-per-hour. Heavy equipment has been placed along the interstate and work to install portable barrier walls was begun.
Straessle says three travel lanes will be open during rush hours to minimize the impact of the construction. The goal of the project is to eventually have four lanes in each direction at the western end of the interstate where four major roadways come together.
UPDATE July 19, 2018, 10:30 a.m.: The case was transferred from U.S. District Judge Wilson to Judge Kristine Baker, who attorney Mays says recused herself because she knows some of the plaintiffs. The case has now been assigned to Judge James Moody. The attorney for the plaintiffs is hoping a brief court hearing can be held by the end of the day Thursday concerning his request for a temporary restraining order that would halt construction until the merits of the lawsuit can be considered.