City-parish president candidates Joel Robideaux and Dee Stanley navigated questions on coal-generated power, the disruption an elevated interstate might cause in Lafayette and whether the city has too many traffic signals — all posed at a Thursday evening forum sponsored by the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
In a campaign season where the candidates have often found themselves repeatedly addressing the same issues in the string of debates and forums leading up to the Oct. 24 election, Stanley and Robideaux covered some new ground at the environmental group’s forum at the Lafayette Public Library downtown.
Robideaux, a longtime state legislator and accountant, and Stanley, who has served 12 years as outgoing City-Parish President Joey Durel’s chief administrative officer, were given 90 seconds each for a rapid response to a series of questions, starting with whether plans to build Interstate 49 through Lafayette should be abandoned in favor of an alternative route east of the city.
The Sierra Club has cited concerns about the dislocation of homes and businesses, the impact to downtown and nearby historical neighborhoods, and the disturbance of old waste sites during construction, among other things.
Both candidates acknowledged that a mostly elevated interstate has the potential to divide the city and create blight, but they seemed firmly committed to its current route — a stance that puts them in line with most other political and business leaders who see I-49 South as critical infrastructure for Lafayette.
But the candidates also talked of a need to address the potential downsides of an elevated interstate, with parks, pedestrian pathways and other features to help integrate the interstate into the city.
“Nothing really good happens under elevated structures,” Stanley said. “We have to let sunlight get down there, and we have to build structures that engage the community.”
Robideaux said it is city-parish government’s responsibility “to make sure we do it in a way to have the least impact” and to build a project that will hopefully serve as a model for other communities.
“I just have the utmost confidence in this community to come up with a solution,” he said.
On the issue of Lafayette’s coal-fired power plant, Stanley and Robideaux agreed its days are numbered, considering the ever-increasing federal environmental regulations to reduce pollution from coal emissions.
But neither candidate sees the shift happening any time soon.
Lafayette has cleaner-burning natural gas plants within city limits but gets more than half of its electricity from a coal-fired plant near Boyce. Lafayette shares ownership of the plant with other power companies.
Building another natural gas plant in the city and transitioning from coal could be an expensive endeavor, because the city has a major investment in the existing coal plant, as well as long-term contracts to buy and transport the out-of-state coal used to feed it.
“There are expenses associated with trying to get out from under those things,” Robideaux said. “ Certainly, it is something we should look into. That discussion is certainly worth having.”
Stanley said he hopes Lafayette will wean itself off coal “in my political lifetime.”
“I think that is something that will likely happen, but it is not going to happen tomorrow,” he said.
In perhaps one of the more unusual questions of the evening, the candidates were asked if city-parish government should consider reducing the number of traffic signals, which are sometimes blamed with worsening air pollution, because of the time vehicles spend idling, and with exacerbating traffic congestion when installed without a careful study of whether a signal is needed.
“If the studies show and the data show they have an impact, then why would we not study it?” Robideaux asked.
Stanley said the issue is already on the radar of city-parish traffic engineers, who prefer roundabouts and other options.
“I can tell you our transportation engineers would love to remove as many as we can and still keep safe,” Stanley said.
A few other questions tossed around Thursday:
Should Lafayette, in a change from year s past, bid out its garbage and recycling contract?
Both candidates said yes, with Robideaux firmly in favor and Stanley responding that the city should, at the very least, request bids to see if a cheaper rate can be found.
Should the city-owned utility system hold annual meetings for its customers?
Both candidates said they had never thought about it but it seems like a good idea.