Guest column: Lafayette Connector project on I-49 requires fresh thinking _lowres

Harry Weiss

In launching a national dialogue about the future of transportation in America, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has shifted discussion from the conventional focus on moving people and things to the critical role transportation plays in shaping our communities and creating new social and economic opportunity.

More than a means to get from point A to B, transportation infrastructure in the 21st century must repair and improve all the places along the way and must catalyze opportunities upon which communities can thrive and succeed.

This paradigm shift places social inclusivity, community building, place making, economic development and access to opportunity as priorities equal in stature to mobility and safety.

With the planning of the Interstate 49 Connector, Lafayette is among the first communities seeking to infuse these principles in an urban interstate highway. This challenge involves much more than the mitigation of the effects that conventional highways have produced in communities during the past 70 years. Our challenge is to conceive of a highway that can foster connections across the community rather than dividing it, that has the ability to repair and restore our tattered urban fabric, and that opens access to new opportunity while bringing opportunity to where it is sorely needed.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has shown a refreshing and willing engagement of this important work by exploring a range of alternatives to the initial design concept they started with in the fall. In terms of traffic and safety, the alternatives all appear to perform well. What distinguishes one scheme from another are the larger community benefits it embodies. Thoughtful and compelling planning concepts generated from neighborhood input during the Evangeline Corridor Initiative design studio have further sparked the community’s imagination and helped us to visualize the possibilities.

Lafayette grew in the 20th century without much forethought or a strong ethic of planning. Like most American cities, we enabled ever-outward expansion while letting our urban core languish and slowly erode.

Planning, or rather the lack of it, has had real consequences for our economic sustainability and competitiveness. Successful communities of the future must possess strong urban cores that complement their suburban and rural assets.

Though much remains to be vetted, the scenarios taking shape offer real choices about the kind of city Lafayette aspires to be. Among the greatest opportunities to be captured in the connector is how it can catalyze improvement of the urban core. Will our strategy be one of accommodating the interstate, massaging its edges without a strong commitment to the form and pattern of the city around it? Or will we embrace a vision of the city we want for the 21st century that is intentional and deliberate?

To meet the challenge Secretary Foxx has defined, we must first reject complacency and remove the blinders of convention that limit our vision and impede our innovative and creative instincts. To achieve consensus, we must resolutely commit ourselves to find solutions that balance the complex and myriad aspects of this project and that unlock the potential of the center city that has been suppressed for far too long.

Harry Weiss is vice president of urban revitalization and development and the lead staff member on the I-49 Connector project for One Acadiana, the regional chamber of commerce for the greater Lafayette area.