The renewed push for the Interstate 49 Connector through Lafayette seems to be off to a bumpy start.
The state Department of Transportation and Development launched an outreach effort last month to gather public input for the road design, but questions already have arisen about what’s up for discussion and what’s not.
The apparent disconnect between state transportation officials and some locals surfaced publicly in project meetings last week, soon after a DOTD consultant likened the task to picking out wallpaper and colors for a house that’s almost finished.
Lafayette city-parish planner Neil LeBouef countered that DOTD might meet resistance if it sticks rigidly to preliminary engineering work for the road.
“It’s going to lead you down a very difficult path,” he said. “There may be alternatives that are better for the community.”
In official public statements, DOTD has maintained everything is still up for discussion, barring a shift in the planned footprint of the mostly elevated 5.5-mile stretch of interstate that would roughly follow the path of Evangeline Thruway.
In project meetings, a more nuanced picture emerges: Existing plans for the connector are not set in stone, but there could be limits to major changes in elevation, frontage roads, and the location and design of interchanges.
A key issue, at least from DOTD’s perspective, is that the federal government already has signed off on the current route of the connector and issued a “Record of Decision” in 2003.
DOTD says any major changes might void that Record of Decision, triggering another lengthy round of studies and public meetings on how the road would impact local traffic patterns, historic neighborhoods and the environment, among other things.
The Downtown Development Authority and city-parish officials have talked of several possible changes to the preliminary design, including higher elevations of the interstate in some areas to make it more inviting for parks underneath and eliminating or altering the planned exit for Second and Third streets to curb high-speed traffic in and around downtown.
The DDA also has questioned a plan that brings the interstate down near ground level as it skirts downtown, creating what some fear will be a wall separating downtown from communities on the other side of the road and not allowing for any public space under the interstate.
When Downtown Lafayette Unlimited Director of Marketing and Events Kate Durio pressed DOTD officials at a recent project meeting on how open they might be to altering the design, the answers were guarded.
“It’s up for discussion. However, we do have a completed EIS (environmental impact statement) and a Record of Decision,” said John McNamara, a consultant for DOTD. “There is a fine line we are going to try to walk.”
DOTD has pledged to move forward on the project with a so-called “context-sensitive solutions” approach, which has sometimes been described as “thinking beyond the pavement.”
The idea is that roads are about more than just moving vehicles and that the design of an interstate can impact the character of everything around it.
It’s an approach meant to address all the obvious downsides of big, elevated roadways, which can divide cities, disrupt local traffic and shadow out quality development.
One problem is that a context-sensitive approach ideally relies on extensive community input before a route is chosen or engineers begin design work.
There were public meetings held on selecting the current route, but it’s been more than a decade since there has been any serious public dialogue on the details of the interstate project.
So the current planning effort finds a new generation of community leaders learning about a connector project after the route has been chosen, the interchanges identified and the engineering work begun.
It’s clear some issues are still up for discussion: the location of parks and other public spaces underneath the interstate, landscaping, pedestrian and bike paths, lighting, and what colors, materials and aesthetic design themes should be used.
Altering an interchange, major shifts in elevation and other engineering changes move into murkier territory, and the test seems to be whether those changes might prompt federal highway officials to require an updated Record of Decision.
“Those are ideas we have to vet,” DOTD consultant Steve Wallace said a t a meeting on the project last week.
The I-49 Connector, estimated to cost at least $700 million, is o ne of most expensive segments in the plan to complete I-49 from Lafayette south to New Orleans.
The current questions come as the c o nnector project is moving forward after years of sparse activity ; a nd there have always been concerns about building an elevated interstate through the city.
Though some of the specifics have been questioned, the project generally has strong support from local political leaders and has been identified as top priority by One Acadiana and the industry-backed I-49 South Coalition .
But as recently as 2013, local officials in St. Martin Parish and legislators representing the area asked DOTD to revisit an alternative route that would bring I-49 east of Lafayette through mostly undeveloped land in St. Martin Parish.
The route was considered and dismissed in the studies and public hearings leading up to the 2003 Record of Decision approving the current path of the c o nnector.
The current route also was the subject of an unsuccessful federal lawsuit in 2004 arguing that viable alternatives to building interstate through Lafayette were not considered.
Harold Schoeffler, a key opponent involved in the litigation, has recently renewed his fight against the road and has helped organize a “ Y-49” meeting on Dec. 3 at the Lafayette Public Library to discuss plans for the road.
“Everybody else is tearing these things down,” he said.