What to do with the rundown, dangerous and divisive Evangeline Thruway is a critical open question facing state transportation officials planning an elevated interstate connection through the heart of Lafayette.
The Department of Transportation and Development is considering two options: keep the basic structure in place as a frontage road, or reinvent a portion of the roadway as a pedestrian-friendly “Grand Boulevard.”
The thruway cordoned neighborhoods to the east when it was built in 1963, and the boulevard idea aims to reconnect those neighborhoods to downtown commerce.
State officials and their consultants said a decision will come within a year. Lafayette Consolidated Government, however, has already decided. They want the boulevard, and they are seeking a $17 million federal grant to build it. The problem for them is the state owns the road.
The grant application, which the City-Parish Council approved Oct. 3, characterizes the boulevard as an outgrowth of the Interstate 49 connector project, and state officials have long discussed the boulevard as one possible piece of a roughly $700 million project. But the application was conceived without DOTD's input, apart from the state’s I-49 planning process.
Mayor-President Joel Robideaux acknowledged in an interview the awkwardness that would result if the federal government’s agreement to fund the project is met with state refusal to allow it.
“I can’t spend a nickel of that money to do anything without the state blessing it and planning it and engineering it and doing all the state stuff,” Robideaux said.
The 5.5-mile interstate plan would run from I-10 to near the south end of Lafayette Regional Airport, mostly along the path of the thruway. The boulevard proposal is for less than one mile of Evangeline, stretching from Taft Street to Jefferson Boulevard through some of Lafayette’s oldest neighborhoods, which the interstate separates from the thruway path.
The grant application focuses on the detrimental effects of the thruway on the neighborhoods to the east, which are primarily black communities and poorer than those to the west.
McComb-Veazey in particular “stagnates and suffers from disinvestment,” according to the application. Sidewalks on the thruway are unconnected and poorly maintained, and traffic — including a large number of heavy industrial trucks — whizzes by inches from anyone walking on them.
“The thruway has served as this Berlin Wall,” Robideaux said.
City-parish officials want to replace what exists now with a complex boulevard consisting of four roads and three grassy, tree-lined medians. In the middle would be two two-lane main roads in either direction ferrying thru traffic, while smaller one-way roads on either side would handle vehicles going to nearby streets and provide parking. Wide sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes are part of the design. The cost is $27.7 million, and the city-parish is seeking federal support for more than three quarters of that amount through the grant application and other means.
Plans to build an Interstate 49 extension through downtown Lafayette are lurching forward as…
State officials refused to support the grant application because, among other things, doing so could compromise a federally required environmental review procedure that is underway for the interstate project, according to DOTD project manager Tim Nickel’s Oct. 11 letter to Carlee Alm-LaBar, who is Lafayette’s planning director.
That procedure requires objective consideration of all alternatives, which in this case include keeping the existing “couplet” — two one-way roads separated by a mini-city block with private property in between.
Robideaux said he pushed the grant application because President Donald Trump's administration’s budget proposal eliminated funding for the $500 million grant program, which is called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER. Congress has not taken up Trump’s budget, and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the availability of 2017 funds on Sept. 7. The deadline to apply was Monday , leaving only about five weeks for applications to be filed.
“I don’t have the luxury as the parish president to worry about all the bureaucratic hurdles, and, 'Oh, you didn’t ask permission,' ” Robideaux said. “There are federal tax dollars we all pay into available, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be available again, so we are going to find a project and ask.”
DOTD's Nickel said in a brief interview that Lafayette officials are inducing a “possible conflict of federal policy” by seeking grant money for a project that is being evaluated as part of a required environmental review. That could hurt Lafayette’s chances of getting the money, he said.
“There are so many people competing for money, you don’t want a reason for them not to select you, and to me that would be a big one,” Nickel said.
Nickel also said it was “concerning” that local officials had not partnered with their state counterparts on the grant application, adding that Wilson’s letter requesting support the previous day was “the first time we have received official correspondence.”
Alm-LaBar’s Oct. 10 letter came a full week after the City-Parish Council approved the application. Robideaux said he notified DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson of the application via text on Sept. 27.
DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said Wilson was unavailable for comment Friday. Mallett declined further comment because he had not seen the grant application.
The icy exchange underscores the sometimes-tense relationship among local and state officials involved in the I-49 project, which first gained steam in 2003, tapered off and picked up again in 2015.
The state’s lack of support on the grant application “hasn’t helped,” Robideaux said, but he noted the city-parish successfully obtained TIGER money in 2014 without the state’s approval. Robideaux said he thinks the state-local relationship is good, and that any tension is typical with a project this size.
Lafayette’s former planning director, Kevin Blanchard, disagrees. The previous TIGER grant, for about $300,000, was used to conduct outreach with neighborhoods surrounding Evangeline. Blanchard said local and state officials sought to concoct an agreement formalizing the city-parish’s role as an outreach coordinator for the I-49 project. An agreement was never reached, he said, because the state wanted to limit where city-parish officials could engage.
“We were like, well, we actually have a federal grant that tells us to do neighborhood work, so we don’t see how we can move off of that,” said Blanchard, who left the city-parish government in 2015. “The city had an obligation to fulfill the terms of the grant.”
The local engagement efforts continued, apart from the state’s interstate planning, Blanchard said, and the parallel efforts have culminated in the flap over the most recent grant application.
“There has been I think inadequate communication between local government and DOTD,” Blanchard said. “I think a big theme of this project has been that disconnect.”
Blanchard and Robideaux are both hoping a grant award would nudge the state toward the boulevard option.
“If the federal government says, ‘Great idea, here’s $20 million,’ well, that puts us all in a position to figure out a solution to go get it,” Robideaux said. “For me that’s a good position for us all to be in.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was modified on Sunday, Oct. 22, to correct a reporting error on the name of Carlee Alm-LaBar, the Lafayette city-parish planning director. The Advocate regrets the error.