BRIDGE GONE: The Highway Department completed removal of the Hughes Street overpass last night as work continues on the challenged I-630 widening projecgt.

As I mentioned last night, Judge Jay Moody will announce today whether he’ll grant a temporary restraining order on the lawsuit arguing the Arkansas Department of Transportation should have performed an environmental assessment before undertaking an $87 million, 2.5-mile widening of Interstate 630. Barry Haas, a civic activist of long-standing, observed events and provided a report to me on yesterday’s hearing.

Haas concluded that Richard Mays, attorney for the plaintiffs, had a hard job because of benefit of doubt extended to public agencies when they make a determination that a project qualifies for an exemption. And significant sums have already been spent, with the challenge coming late in the game.

But he thinks, as I do, that the lawsuit puts the highway department and federal highway agency on notice about pending future projects, both the I-30 widening downtown and the I-430/Cantrell work.  Mays has noted the interconnected nature of all these projects and their likely burgeoning impact on traffic and, thus, neighborhood impact.

Haas reports that Mays called two plaintiffs, George Wise and Matthew Pekar, to testify that they use I-630 to commute from homes downtown to jobs in West Little Rock.

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Mays next called Randal Looney, Environmental Coordinator for the Arkansas Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Mays questioned Looney about the Tier 3 Categorical Exclusion approved for the I-630 expansion, and whether the I-630 project was eligible for this lesser level of environmental scrutiny prior to construction commencing.

A Categorical Exclusion is the least exhaustive environmental analysis of a proposed project, and is reserved by federal law only for projects that do not have the potential to do greater harm and require either a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environment Assessment (EA).

After a break for lunch, defendants Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) called their witnesses. Randal Looney was called back to the stand by the defendants. Attorneys for ArDOT and FHWA were trying to show the CE was justified and met federal law. Mays for the plaintiffs was trying to show that the CE was inappropriate. Numerous times during the day Judge Moody asked questions in an attempt to clarify critical points that would determine whether the CE’s lesser level of scrutiny on the I-630 project was legally justifiable.

Other witnesses called by the defendants were several ArDOT employees who explained their agency’s role in planning and environmental approval for the I-630 expansion.