I-49 Connector planners in Lafayette try ‘thinking beyond the pavement’ _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- A sign marking the Southwest Evangeline Thruway as a future corridor for I-49 is pictured on the Thruway near Fifth Street Thursday, September 24, 2015, in Lafayette, La.

It’s been 17 years since the installation of road signs hopefully proclaiming U.S. 90 through Lafayette as the “Future Corridor” of Interstate 49.

It will likely be many more years before completion of I-49 South, but design work is beginning in earnest to iron out the details of what it will look like and how a new elevated interstate might be built through the city of Lafayette without badly disrupting what’s already here or becoming a wall that divides the city.

The state Department of Transportation and Development has scheduled an Oct. 6 public meeting to formally launch an 18-month outreach project to gather comments and ideas on the planned road project.

“This next 18 months gives us the opportunity to develop an interstate that will both move traffic and be an asset to the surrounding community,” said Lafayette City-Parish Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, who has been involved in city-parish government’s planning to integrate the elevated interstate into downtown, the Sterling Grove Historic District, the McComb-Veazey neighborhood and other areas that could be impacted.

The mostly elevated 5.5-mile, six-lane stretch through Lafayette is dubbed the “I-49 Connector.”

Estimated to cost from $700 million to $1 billion, it is one of the most expensive segments in the plan to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards from Interstate 10 in Lafayette south to New Orleans.

No funding has been identified, but the DOTD event next month marks the beginning of a significant new phase that will, in a few years, end with a detailed design for the road.

Local legislators, city-parish officials and the regional economic development group One Acadiana have consistently identified I-49 South as the region’s top transportation priority.

But there are concerns, especially considering that it’s been at least a decade since any substantive public discussion on the route or design of the connector.

A lot has changed over the last 10 years in regards to thinking about how the design of a road can impact the character of a city.

“We didn’t even have context-sensitive design back then. Now, it has a name,” said Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris, describing the approach DOTD officials say they plan to take when designing the connector.

The approach has sometimes been described as “thinking beyond the pavement.”

Norris and Blanchard, though supporting I-49 South, share similar concerns about what might be built.

Among those concerns is the planned downtown interstate interchange at Second and Third streets, which come together to form Congress Street as it skirts north of the core of downtown.

Norris said he would like to avoid any plan by DOTD that sends heavy traffic speeding down Congress, which is now being studied for a possible makeover as a slower route more friendly for walkers, bicyclists and developers.

“We want access, but we may not need a full-on interchange,” Norris said. “If they are not going 25 mph or less, it’s wrong.”

Blanchard said another issue he hopes to address is the height of some elevated portions of the road.

A rough preliminary design done years ago brings the height of the interstate down to 5 feet between the interchange for Second and Third streets and the nearby Johnson Street interchange — too low to allow for pedestrians to pass underneath or for the parks or landscaping proposed for sections of the I-49 corridor.

Some of those issues also are being explored in a separate project overseen by city-parish government to develop a plan for effectively incorporating the new highway into the existing neighborhoods and commercial districts, Blanchard said

DOTD spokeswoman Deidra Druilhet said the state agency is keenly aware of the need to re-evaluate existing plans and to think about not only the road, but everything around it.

“We haven’t built a project of this magnitude in many years,” she said. “... I think a lot of people really want to be involved in this process, and that’s exactly what we want.”

DOTD’s public meeting for the I-49 Connector is set for 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center in downtown Lafayette.

DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas, City-Parish President Joey Durel and other officials are scheduled to speak at 3 p.m.

An open-house still public information meeting will run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.