The controversy surrounding the closing of F Street under Interstate 15 could have been avoided had it been clear during planning that the closure was permanent, a former city councilman said Wednesday.
Lawrence Weekly said he would have held neighborhood meetings in West Las Vegas to make sure everyone was aware of the closure and to hear residents' concerns. Instead, when the city and Nevada Department of Transportation issued notice of the closure in 2006 as part of the $240 million I-15 north widening project, only residents within 400 feet of the project were alerted.
Weekly, now a Clark County Commissioner in District D, believes the Transportation Department probably followed the required procedure but it wasn't enough "because of the sensitivity of that neighborhood."
By not going beyond the required process and informing the entire West Las Vegas community, transportation officials struck a chord of distrust in this historically black community, said Weekly. Past actions have led some West Las Vegans to believe the closure of F Street is racially motivated and an attempt to segregate the community from downtown.
"I know how sensitive people in the community can be because of the lack of trust for government," Weekly said.
That sensitivity could be seen Wednesday morning as more than 50 West Las Vegans and supporters marched from F Street to City Hall to voice their indignation about the closure.
The march follows a lawsuit seeking to reopen F Street, which state transportation officials fear could cost taxpayers an extra $30 million should it be successful and result in a redesign and reconstruction of that portion of the interstate.
Weekly admitted his own culpability in not fully realizing the design plan for F Street.
"I'm not pointing fingers. I'm accepting my role. I should have better understood it, but I'm not a an engineer," Weekly said.
On Wednesday morning, chants from protesters to reopen F Street pierced the crisp cool air, even as a construction backhoe piled dirt onto the wall that will permanently close the road.
Mitchell Sayles said the closure is proof the city is treating West Las Vegas — generally bordered by Carey Avenue, Bonanza Road, I-15 and Rancho Drive — as second-class citizens.
"We're blocked off. We're a reservation now like Native Americans," Sayles said.
The marchers stuck to the sidewalk and avoided causing traffic delays downtown.
Once at City Hall, protesters voiced their complaints to the City Council during its redevelopment agency meeting and asked the street be reopened.
Gene Collins, head of the local chapter of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said if the city doesn't do "the right thing" and work to reopen F Street, Wednesday's march would be only the beginning of protest activity.
Under advice from Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic, city officials resisted commenting on the issue because of the pending lawsuit.
The city of Las Vegas has maintained in the past that the closure was the result of a fatal moped accident on F Street and complaints from residents about construction traffic.
Mayor Oscar Goodman would say only that he was personally offended by the lawsuit because it implied racism on the part of city leaders.
The lawsuit, filed by several residents and neighborhood organizations, contends the Transportation Department and the city did not give residents adequate opportunity to comment or inform them of the closure plans.
Lead attorney Matthew Callister said Weekly's comments help prove the notion that the state did not fulfill its obligations. The lawsuit will go before District Court Judge Ken Cory Jan. 21.
State transportation officials say all the requirements regarding public meetings and comment periods were met.
"This surprised us," spokesman Scott Magruder said of the reaction to the closure. While preparing to respond to the lawsuit, the Transportation Department has yet to discover any record of complaints regarding the closure, he said.
"We learned a lot from the U.S. Highway 95 controversy," he said, explaining how that project was delayed nine months and cost an extra $20 million as the result of a lawsuit.
As a result, the Transportation Department took extra care to follow the public hearing requirements for the I-15 north widening project following the U.S. 95 lawsuit, Magruder said.
Once the lawsuit moves forward, Magruder said, the Transportation Department will show that procedure was followed.
Later in the morning, Councilman Ricki Barlow singled out an agenda item about a planned D Street Connector that's intended to pick up the traffic diverted by the closure of F Street.
The construction, budgeted at $507,000, would expand Wilson Avenue to four lanes as well as upgrade D Street. When complete, drivers from the West Las Vegas neighborhood could use the D Street underpass and either continue on D Street to Bonanza or use Wilson Avenue to go to F Street south of I-15, which connects to Bonanza and Grand Central Parkway.
One marcher, Beatrice Turner, had stayed behind, and she had nothing nice to say about the proposal, in part because drivers would have to go past the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, which also fronts D Street.
"You've got the rescue mission there," she said. "You mean to tell me that's how we've got to travel through our community? No way. No how."
The council took no action on the plan, instead agreeing to hold it for two weeks so that it can be presented to the public. The original design contract was approved in 2004.
Review-Journal writer Alan Choate contributed to this story.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.