Proposed toll road loop around Lafayette ‘back on front burner’ _lowres

 

The Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission is preparing to refocus on one of the more ambitious infrastructure proposals in Lafayette’s history, a toll road loop around the city.

The loop proposal isn’t new, but it’s been roughly five years since any significant public discussion of the project, and it likely has faded from memory for many residents.

The commission paused planning for the bypass so as not to compete for attention with the proposed Interstate 49 Connector, a six-lane interstate that would roughly follow the path of the Evangeline Thruway.

The state Department of Transportation and Development revised work on the Connector last year, and now the expressway commission hopes to get back on task.

“We decided we are going to put it back on the front burner,” said longtime commission member Elaine Abell. “We can get back to what we were going to do.”

The commission plans to host public hearings this fall to begin narrowing possible routes for what’s being called the Lafayette Regional Xpressway, or the LRX.

The general idea is for the road to connect with Interstate 49 north of Lafayette, then swing southwest, crossing Interstate 10 in the Duson/Scott area and heading south a bit before curving back east to connect with U.S. 90 south of Lafayette.

The commission is exploring two alternative corridors for the northern section of the road and three for the south.

“All of these combinations are on the table,” said Kam Movassaghi, a former DOTD secretary who is working as a consultant for the expressway commission.

The meetings this fall will give residents a chance to say if they support the project and, if so, what route they favor.

The comments will be used to prepare a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement, which is a preliminary study of how the different alternatives impact existing residential and commercial developments, traffic, wildlife, waterways, wetlands and historic areas, among other things.

It is the first step in a three-tiered analysis to vet and narrow the alternatives until a final route is chosen.

The entire process is expected to take from four to five years and, assuming everything goes as planned, will result in a Record of Decision — a formal OK from the federal government that is required to seek federal funding for the project.

The specifics of how much the road might cost and where the money will come from to pay for it still are unknown.

The price tag depends largely on the length of the road and the number of interchanges, both of which are still in play.

Under the alternative routes being considered, the bypass could range from 27 miles to 36 miles. Preliminary cost estimates done in 2009 put the price between $1 billion and $1.3 billion.

That estimate is for the entire bypass, but the commission could tackle it in phases.

Abell said it is unlikely the road will be built without tolls.

“The state doesn’t have any money. I don’t see us waiting on that,” she said.

Tolls are not expected to generate enough revenue to cover all the construction costs — studies are pending to determine how much — and the commission is looking at options for federal grants and loans, state money and private funds.

Movassaghi said toll revenue rarely brings in enough cash to completely finance a new road.

“This project will not be any different,” he said.

There has long been talk of a bypass around Lafayette, and formal planning for the road began in 2003, when the state Legislature created the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission, which is tasked with planning, financing, building and maintaining the road.

The project is still years from becoming a reality, but it is far beyond the idea stage.

Before the commission stood down a few years ago in deference to I-49, there had been a series of preliminary studies to identify possible routes, to determine if toll financing was feasible and to identify interchange locations.

Movassaghi said there still is concern about pushing forward with the bypass project while DOTD is working on the I-49 Connector, not because the projects are competitors but because opponents of building an interstate through Lafayette might look to the bypass as an alternative to keep the interstate out of the city.

“This project is by no means an alternative to the connector project,” Movassaghi said. “This is just an add on.”