A final thanks for Sierra Club lawsuit

Last week, I took a morning rush-hour spin along the newly widened stretch of U.S. Highway 95 running west of downtown.

I must say it was a pretty smooth ride -- at least compared with the near-gridlock congestion that has plagued the 95 for many years.

But I motored down that section of highway knowing full well that I should enjoy it while it lasts, because it's not going to last long.

Extensive studies and common sense tell us that widening a highway in a fast-growing community is not an answer to traffic congestion. It's a temporary fix. In the case of the U.S. 95 widening, a $500 million temporary fix.

But don't take my word for it. Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, believes U.S. 95 will become annoyingly congested again within two years.

Snow explains that when you "introduce new capacity in the system" -- in other words, widen the highway -- people eagerly take advantage of it. "Eventually the system reaches equilibrium," he says.

U.S. 95 will suffer this fate. For at least a decade, because of mind-numbing bottlenecks and construction obstacles, many northwest residents have tried to avoid U.S. 95. But now that it's a free-wheeling 10-lane speedway, motorists are going to fill up those lanes. That, combined with continued growth, will jam up the wider highway sooner rather than later.

This is why the Sierra Club filed suit several years ago. Seeing the big picture, the environmental group warned that widening the highway was a temporary fix, and that the resulting rise in traffic would increase air pollution in the neighborhoods through which the highway courses.

The legal action angered many Las Vegans who believed that widening U.S. 95 was going to solve the northwest valley's traffic problems and that the lawsuit would merely delay nirvana. Sadly, the public discussion was framed emotionally as a case of wild-eyed eco-nuts standing in the way of progress.

The Sierra Club has gotten a bad rap.

First of all, the Sierra Club's lawsuit ended with a settlement that addresses many of the organization's concerns. Special air-handling equipment is being installed in three schools adjacent to the highway, meaning cleaner air for hundreds of children. In addition, $1 million was allocated to retrofit Clark County school buses to reduce harmful exhaust. At Ruth Fyfe Elementary School, three portable buildings and a playground were moved farther away from the highway. Because of the size and shape of the campus, the facilities were moved only about 50 feet farther from the traffic, but studies show that every foot counts in reducing the effects of pollution.

There's more. The settlement includes $500,000 to study the behavior of pollutants around highways, which is not yet well-understood. The national study will look at three locations in Las Vegas, North Carolina and Michigan. Finally, the settlement created an outreach and education program aimed at reducing the idling time of diesel vehicles, especially school buses. It's not unusual for bus drivers to leave their vehicles idling for 20 or 30 minutes while they wait for students. This is expensive and highly polluting. The program is working to educate drivers and their supervisors.

As you can see, the Sierra Club's lawsuit did not extract monumental concessions to environmental responsibility from state and federal transportation agencies. But the legal action proved worthwhile in raising awareness about the negative effects of highway building and the responsibility to address those effects.

Rather than being embittered by its vitriolic critics, the Sierra Club should be proud of its bold efforts to stand up for environmental protection and progressive transportation policy. It's a real shame that so few Las Vegans came to the organization's defense.

Oh, and by the way, before the Sierra Club ever got involved, the environmental impact study conducted in preparation for the U.S. 95 widening project recognized that adding lanes would increase air pollution, and that measures would be needed to mitigate the problem.

That study was the impetus for the Regional Transportation Commission's planned express bus service along U.S. 95. The RTC intends to start the express bus system in July 2009 to transport northwest commuters to and from downtown and the Strip.

The express buses -- similar in comfort to the luxury coaches that tourists might ride to Disneyland or the Grand Canyon -- will travel in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane during morning and afternoon rush hours.

"This will be the first example where we can provide a transit service in which we can get people to their destinations faster than they can get there in their cars," Snow says.

At frequent intervals -- 10 or 15 minutes -- the buses will pick up residents at park-and-ride lots and take them nonstop to a new downtown station. If your workplace is close enough to the planned station at Bonneville Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard, you could walk or ride your bike to complete the journey. If the office is a little farther, you'll jump on one of a new series of bus lines that will use dedicated lanes to parts of downtown and the Strip.

The RTC's express bus program is exactly the kind of thing the Sierra Club and others see as a more serious approach to transportation planning than simply adding lanes. And it's much less expensive than light rail, the preferred option in many other cities coping with congestion.

Look. Considering the rapid and sustained growth of Las Vegas, I will concede that U.S. 95 needed to be widened. It was a highway built to handle 1985-level traffic. But widening is just one piece of the puzzle. Ramp meters and HOV lanes are important pieces as well, and the express bus service will be another. Yet another is making sure people living, working and going to school next to the highway are not victimized by our need for speed.

Thanks to forward-thinking folks at the Sierra Club and the RTC, good things are resulting from the acrimony over the U.S. 95 project. And they are being done largely in defiance of the conventional wisdom that all we need are a few more lanes and everything will be hunky-dory.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.