Red herrings on the roadways

Of all the NIMBYs and no-growth nitwits that valley residents have had to put up with this decade, none threw out more red herrings than the Sierra Club and a handful of Sun City Summerlin grumps.

Let’s gut those fish, once and for all.

You’ll recall that several years ago, the Sierra Club sued to block the widening of U.S. Highway 95 between downtown and the Rainbow Curve. The green extremists persuaded their friends on San Francisco’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to halt work on the project and entertain the junk science claim that free-flowing traffic on a wider arterial posed a greater threat to the health of nearby schoolchildren than the polluting gridlock of a six-lane parking lot.

And just last year, Clark County officials placated a particularly noisy minority of Sun City Summerlin residents by agreeing to leave the finished, $12.4 million Beltway interchange at Lake Mead Boulevard closed for two years. The retirement set argued that opening the exit before the completion of improvements to the nearby Summerlin Parkway interchange would increase crime and send waves of speeding traffic past their community, leading to horrible crashes that would maim and kill senior drivers.

Those old-timers were nothing more than “I got mine” isolationists who stalled a master transportation plan, at the inconvenience of many, to spare themselves from minor change. Their cries of carnage were a mask. And the Sierra Club, of course, hates economic development and the automobile. It used children to further its anti-growth, anti-capitalist agenda. That both groups managed to scare government officials into buying this disingenuous nonsense was shameful.

Thanks to public outcry and the efforts of this newspaper’s editorial page, the Clark County Commission reversed course and opened the Lake Mead-Beltway interchange last November. And the Sierra Club eventually settled its lawsuit against the Nevada Department of Transportation, allowing the U.S. 95 widening to be finished by the end of 2007.

So what about the doomsday claims that delayed both projects?

Garbage. All of it.

Las Vegas police and the Nevada Highway Patrol report that since the Beltway interchange was opened, not only has no one been killed in a traffic accident on the stretch of Lake Mead that borders Sun City Summerlin, no one has even been seriously injured in a crash. There’s been no spike in crime or funerals.

As for the Sierra Club and the U.S. 95 widening, the lawsuit settlement required the state to install air filtration systems and pollution-monitoring equipment at three schools along the improved highway: Fyfe Elementary, Adcock Elementary and Western High School. The equipment has been used to measure pollution levels at the schools, both before and after the completion of the widening project, to study the Sierra Club’s claim that the expanded freeway would expose children to higher levels of carcinogens than the constricted, bumper-to-bumper commuter nightmare that existed before it.

California-based Sonoma Technology Inc. was picked to conduct the independent study, which should be wrapped up and released to the public within a few weeks. But the numbers are in, and lead researcher Paul T. Roberts says — brace yourself — pollution from U.S. 95 traffic is down since the highway’s six lanes became 10.

Roberts attributes that finding partly to the recession — he said heavy vehicle traffic was down between 20 and 25 percent from pre-widening levels to last summer, which resulted in significantly less black carbon emissions. However, light vehicle traffic was up since the expansion, and average vehicle speeds were up about 10 mph as a result of the additional travel lanes.

Roberts said the expanse of the urban valley made it extremely difficult to distinguish U.S. 95’s contributions to most mobile-source air toxins, such as benzene. Traffic from surrounding streets has too much to do with overall pollution levels to reach firm conclusions about what effect highway drivers are having.

But he said it is true that free-flowing traffic, which allows car engines to operate at peak efficiency, creates less pollution than gridlocked traffic. Roberts also pointed out that the elementary school day, which runs from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., spares Adcock and Fyfe students from exposure to the peak pollution periods of morning and evening rush hour.

The greatest benefit of the study, Roberts said, is the air filtration systems installed at the schools. They removed about 90 percent of the black carbon particles from big rigs, buses and heavy trucks that otherwise would have been pumped into hallways and classrooms. That’s an indisputable health benefit to students and school employees, he said, that stands to be copied by other schools along American highways.

It’s an interesting outcome considering the Sierra Club lawsuit was filed to block the widening and force the state to construct a far more expensive light rail boondoggle instead (no carbon footprint from that kind of heavy construction, right?). If the goal of Sierra Club was to help children breathe easier, why didn’t it sue the Clark County School District? Better yet, why didn’t it use its own money to install the air filtration systems immediately, rather than wait until years after the lawsuit was filed?

Taxpayers lost untold millions of dollars and hours of productivity through construction and traffic delays for … air filters?

The Sierra Club doesn’t care about kids. It’s a group of shakedown artists who use the courts and Congress to make you pay for what they want.

The U.S. 95 study and the enduring calm along Lake Mead Boulevard serve to remind us and our public officials that the politics of obstruction are all about fear, not proof.

It’s time to start throwing the red herrings back.

Glenn Cook ( is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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