State transportation officials found themselves on unfriendly terrain Thursday, fielding questions often yelled out from an audience of more than 100 at a Sierra Club-sponsored forum on the planned Interstate 49 Connector through Lafayette.
The mood seemed clearly anti-interstate, at least toward an elevated one cutting through the middle of the city.
In a heated meeting that sometimes found environmentalists on the same side as local tea party activists, critics spoke of yet-to-be-explored contamination issues, the interstate’s massive price tag, a city divided by six lanes of concrete, fouled local traffic and what one opponent dubbed “a menace underneath” elevated highways.
“This is a chamber of commerce project. This is not a community project,” said Harold Schoeffler, who was part of a group that filed an unsuccessful lawsuit years ago to block the interstate, which has been in the planning stage for decades.
The crowd that packed into a meeting room at the downtown Lafayette Public Library offered some of the harshest criticism of the project since the state Department of Transportation and Development in October launched a public outreach campaign to gather input on the design of the road.
“I’m not here to shove this project down y’all throats,” said Toby Picard, DOTD’s manager for the project.
The mostly elevated 5.5-mile stretch — estimated to cost at least $700 million — would roughly follow the route of Evangeline Thruway.
It has strong support from the regional economic development group One Acadiana, most elected officials and the industry-backed I-49 South Coalition.
But there was little love for the project on Thursday evening.
“Is what I’m hearing true? Because when I go to other areas all over America, I see these things dividing communities,” Cajundome Director Greg Davis said.
DOTD officials have pledged to listen to the public and integrate pedestrian paths, parks, public art and other features to address concerns that the road will be a blight-creating eyesore.
But there also are concerns about key engineering issues, such as the height of the road and the layout of certain interchanges in the preliminary design for the connector.
Even planners with Lafayette city-parish government have questioned how willing DOTD is to stray too far from those early plans.
The federal government has signed off on the route of the connector and issued a “Record of Decision” in 2003. DOTD says any major changes might void that earlier federal approval, triggering another lengthy round of studies and public meetings on how the road would affect local traffic patterns, historic neighborhoods and the environment.
“Anything we change has varying degrees of risk to the environmental documents,” Picard said.
Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris said openness to community input on how to mesh the road with the city will be key if the project has any hope of securing federal funding.
“This project is never going to happen if this community cannot reach a consensus,” he said. “Being realistic is realizing that most communities in the United States are tearing down interstates.”
Despite repeated suggestions Thursday evening to either not build the interstate or to build it around the city instead of through it, there were voices calling for doing something to address how the Evangeline Thruway already has divided the city.
“As it stands today, the Evangeline Thruway is a barrier. ... What’s the chance we are taking if we leave it the way it is now?” asked Tina Bingham, who lives in the McComb-Veazey neighborhood near the thruway and who has been active in efforts to redevelop the area. “I think the I-49 project is an opportunity for us to get it right.”